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free will

Free will is probably located in the pre-frontal cortex, and we may even be able to narrow it down to the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex. --Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works

We don't have free will, but we do have free won't.--Richard Gregory (quoted in Blackmore, Consciousness: An Introduction, p. 131)

We must believe in free will, we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer

Free will is a concept in traditional philosophy used to refer to the belief that human behavior is not absolutely determined by external causes, but is the result of choices made by an act of will by the agent. Such choices are themselves not determined by external causes, but are determined by the motives and intentions of the agent, which themselves are not absolutely determined by external causes.

Traditionally, those who deny the existence of free will look to fate, supernatural powers, or material causes as the determinants of human behavior. Free will advocates, or libertarians, as they are sometimes called, believe that while everything else in the universe may be the inevitable consequence of external forces, human behavior is unique and is determined by the agent, not by any god or the stars or the laws of nature.

The traditional concept of free will enters the mainstream of Western Philosophy in metaphysical questions about human responsibility for moral behavior. Many modern debates about free will are often couched in terms of responsibility for moral and criminal behavior. In the Christian tradition, which has framed the issues surrounding free will, the belief hinges on a metaphysical belief in non-physical reality. The will is seen as a faculty of the soul or mind, which is understood as standing outside of the physical world and its governing laws. Hence, for many, a belief in materialism is taken to imply a denial of free will.

The modern view of determinism and free will does not see the two concepts as mutually exclusive. This view began to take shape with arguments such as those offered by Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, XXI). The one god is the ultimate cause of every action, argued Hobbes, but as long as a person is not physically forced to do an act, the act is free. Hobbes couched the argument in terms of liberty vs. necessity, rather than free vs. externally determined will. The sequence of causes leading to a person being blown off a cliff by the wind would be said to have led to an event which was the necessary effect of a series of causes. A person jumping off the cliff would also have a series of causes which led up to it, but if the person was not chased off the cliff and jumped without any immediate material cause necessitating the jump, then the act is one of liberty.

Hobbes’ view shows progress for reconciling materialism, determinism and free will, but it is unsatisfactory. While it makes the case that materialism and determinism do not imply that humans have no metaphysical liberty, it does not address the issue of internal determining causes. It is unlikely a modern materialist would make the argument that regardless of a person’s neurochemical state, if the person is not pushed or chased off the cliff, but jumps, say, while under the delusion that she can fly, the act is one of liberty.

A modern view, which sees no contradiction between believing in free will and materialism, would be couched in neurological terms. The key issue stemming from the free will/determinism debate is the issue of responsibility for one’s actions. Responsibility, however, has at least two essential components: control and understanding. Even early Christian philosophers, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, considered infants, young children and imbeciles, as lacking in control or understanding, not lacking in some metaphysical entity needed for free acts. It is an obvious absurdity to ascribe free will to infants, young children or the insane. Traditional libertarians held that only when a child had reached "the age of reason" did free will kick in. For those who never attained the capacity for adult rational thinking, free will never kicked in.

All our concepts of praise and blame, punishment and reward, depend upon our belief in human responsibility. A person who has an undeveloped or damaged brain or a neurochemical disorder is not responsible for her thoughts or actions if the condition causes an inability to understand or control them. Being able to control one’s behavior is not a sufficient condition for holding a person responsible for her actions. A mentally ill or retarded person or a child may be incapable of understanding the nature of their actions, though capable of controlling their behavior. The incapacity to understand the nature of an act absolves one of responsibility for the act, if not for the behavior. For example, a person might intentionally jump off a cliff but not intend to kill himself. He may have been responsible for jumping off the cliff, but it would a mistake to say he committed suicide if he thought he could fly and did not intend to kill himself.

Since brain development, damage, and disorders occur in degrees, it follows that understanding and control of thoughts and actions occur in degrees. At one extreme, a person may have little or no control over his or her thoughts and actions. Such a person would be a paradigm case of someone lacking free will. At the other extreme, a person may have an apparent superhuman ability to control his or her thoughts and actions. Someone with such self-discipline would be the paradigm of truly free person in the metaphysical sense of 'free'. To claim that to be truly free one must not be bound by laws of cause and effect is absurd and unnecessary. It is unnecessary for the reasons just given. It is absurd, for it requires free acts to be uncaused acts. On this notion, the only free person would be the one who had no clue as to what his or her next thought or action would be. Such a person would be as unfree as one could imagine. 

Today, the focus of the debate over human responsibility is on the capacity to control one’s thoughts and actions, rather than on the metaphysical presence or absence of a non-physical entity with will. Determinism is compatible with ‘free will’, though the term should be abandoned to indicate that the issue is one of capacity for controlling one’s thoughts and actions. That capacity is independent of the truth of materialism or dualism. Certain neurophysical and neurochemical conditions must hold before one can enjoy whatever freedom our species is capable of. A better understanding of these issues will not come from traditional philosophers debating free will vs. determinism. Neuroscientists will provide the knowledge, neurophilosophers the understanding.

See also determinism, dualism, memory , mind, naturalism and soul


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further reading

John Locke's views Book II - Chapter XXI, "Of Power," from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Thomas Aquinas's view

Blackmore, Susan. Consciousness: An Introduction (Oxford University Press 2003).

Churchland, Patricia Smith. Neurophilosophy - Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986).

Dennett, Daniel Clement (2004). Freedom Evolves. Penguin Books.

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Montgomery, Vt.: Bradford Books, 1978).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Consciousness explained illustrated by Paul Weiner (Boston : Little, Brown and Co., 1991).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Kinds of minds : toward an understanding of consciousness (New York, N.Y. : Basic Books, 1996).

Dennett, Daniel Clement. Elbow room : the varieties of free will worth wanting (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1984).

Hofstadter, Douglas R. and Daniel C. Dennett The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul (New York : Basic Books, 1981).

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes and Noble: 1949).

Sacks, Oliver W. An anthropologist on Mars : seven paradoxical tales (New York : Knopf, 1995).

Sacks, Oliver W. Awakenings, [1st. ed. in the U.S.] (Garden City, N.Y.,  Doubleday, 1974).

Sacks, Oliver W. The man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales (New York : Summit Books, 1985).

Sacks, Oliver W. A leg to stand on (New York : Summit Books, 1984).

Wegner, D.M. (2003). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Bradford Books.

Last updated 29-Jan-2014

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