The Free Will Debate

The belief in free will is a foundation of our society. The idea that we don’t have it challenges our view of the world and tests everything that we value.  Our understanding of law, relationships, morality, success, and failure, all change based on whether we have free will.

I’ve long viewed myself as an incompatibilist – That is, that the truth about determinism, precludes the possibility of free will.  Because “everything that happens is determined by antecedent conditions[1] together with the natural laws,” behavior must also be determined by all the antecedent conditions.  That is, my successes, my failures, my thoughts and feelings, my writing of this post, are all the product of the near infinite series of causes and effects that led to this my point.

Which is why the compatibilist view has been so confusing to me and I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to understand that view. Although I think I now have a full understanding of that view, I still think, at best, it obfuscates the point.

The compatibilist agrees with determinism but still holds free will to be possible. However, this view obscures the concept of free will.  In essence, free will to the compatibilist is the possibility of choice. To elucidate the difference, imagine you are presented with a choice between a plate of vegetables and a plate of cookies and you choose the cookies.  To the incompatibilist, there was no free will in this choice: you chose the cookies because of a near infinite series of causes and effects. To the compatibilist, however, while they wouldn’t disagree with this point, they still argue that one has free will because a choice was possible. You chose the cookies freely (e.g. not under duress). You are responsible for that choice. Therefore you have free will.

Now, the compatibilist’s view has some important points.  Specifically, the general, if not overly simplified, argument, is that we need some form of free will to correspond to some form of responsibility.  For example, if one flips a coin, hoping for heads, and it lands on tails, we don’t hold the coin responsible for the outcome – because the coin obviously had no choice in the matter. It was simply the product of billions of interactions.  Similarly, if we truly believe that people don’t have free will, we can’t logically hold them responsible either. If we hold determinism to be true, is there a difference between someone who purposefully punches you in the face vs. someone who slips and accidentally hits you in the face? After-all, neither can be said to be truly responsible.

And it is for this reason that there must be free will to a compatibilist.  What else could explain how we conclude that the first person is responsible for their act but the second is not? Free will to a compatibilist is simply the fact that someone had a choice and acted on it. If we hold anyone responsible, it’s because we assume they acted with free will.

But there’s obvious functional differences between someone who purposefully punches you in the face vs. someone who slips and accidentally hits you in the face.  The former person is more likely to dislike you, be quick to violence, and do it again in the future.  In a related post, I talked about the differences and importance of varying degrees of responsibility, but to quickly summarize those thoughts – responsibility is important insofar as it predicts one’s character and their future behavior.  Indeed, if we learned that the person who purposefully punched you in the face had been slipped a drug that made him excessively aggressive – we would be less likely to hold them responsible.  But note that in both examples, it is product of a series of causes and effects leading to neurological changes that eventually conclude in a punch in the face. The only difference is that in the drug example, we think that it’s unlikely to be representative of one’s character and thus not likely to predict future behavior.

And here is the main reasons the compatibilist view misses the point of the free will debate.  While there may seem like a difference between punching someone and slipping and hitting someone, there isn’t.  The fact that we ascribe agency to ourselves and to others is ultimately a mistake[2].  It is a useful one, insofar as it helps us manage a society, but it is a mistake nonetheless. In both cases, the events are solely the response of a long chain of causes and effects.

To be fair, I tend to agree that the compatibilists are right when they argue that their concept of free will is the one we generally use in our everyday life.  When we ascribe responsibility[3] to anyone for anything, it is because we have implicitly acknowledged that they have ‘free will’ – that is they had the possibility of choice and acted on it.  When we learn that contracts were signed under duress or that an action was a complete unforeseen accident, we tend to acknowledge that the decision wasn’t made ‘freely’ and respond accordingly.

While the compatibilists might be right that this type of free will the one we generally talk about in everyday life, they are wrong in that it is the important one, both philosophically and psychologically. Arguing the compatibilist type of free will is a strawman.  No-one seriously thinks that the people don’t differ in their volitions and subsequent actions. Everyone can agree that the person who purposefully punches you in the face made that decision ‘freely’, while the person who slipped and hit you in the face, did not. While there may be some important nuances regarding when someone can and is acting freely (e.g. mental health, insanity plea, children), and these questions do deserve some attention, the idea that people differ in their relative freedom is seemingly a self-evident fact. Arguing in favor for free will in this context is like arguing whether water molecules are actually wet. Like the compatibilist of free will, everyone agrees that the subjective experience of water is wet, but the real question is whether the individual H20 molecules feel wet.

On the other hand, free will to the incompatibilist leads to a number of much more interesting and important questions. First, it calls into doubt the self-evident claim of relative freedom. For example, other than the practical reasons already laid out above, why exactly should we hold the person who punches someone in the face as responsible but not the person who slipped? And what should we do about the person who was drugged?

Consider the case of leaded fuel exposure and violent crime in the USA.




Although the research has been mainly correlational, let us assume that we’ve determined that there is a definitive biological reason that exposure to lead results in greater violence. Should someone who worked in lead fuel plant be held responsible for a violent act? My intuition says no – or at the very least he/she should be held less responsible. If anything, the ‘punishment’ should be treatment – detoxifying from the lead as best as possible. And yet, what if we never learned of this link? That same person, the person who had very obvious and realistic reasons for acting violently would be held just as responsible as anyone else who hadn’t been exposed to the lead.  But similar processes are happening to everyone at every second of the day – it’s just that the links are not very obvious or as direct. How then can we truly blame people for their actions?

Secondly, the idea that I am not the author of my thoughts is one that can result in serious existential angst. What am I as a person, if I am solely the product of near infinite series of causes and effects.  Anyone with exactly the same genetics and experiences would do exactly as I’m doing.  Why bother writing this post? Why bother with anything at all? To be fair, I don’t have a good answer to these questions, but these are important philosophical questions that must be addressed, and could be addressed if we could get past the compatibilist strawman view of free will.

Lastly, the incompatibilist view of free will makes us redefine the structure of our society. In an earlier post, I wrote about the Myth of the American Dream, in which I laid out a number of the reasons that the common belief that we are all free to prosper and succeed has some important limitations. I noted then that “each and every one of us is equally the result of a vast array of seemingly random, or at least unpredictable, processes that shape our lives from the moment we are born.  Circumstances that we do not choose shape our lives in drastic ways and result in vast inequalities before we ever begin.”

While writing it, I couldn’t help but also want to touch on the elephant in the room – free will. Not only is a child born into an abusive family, stricken with poverty, negligent parents, and bad schools, etc. clearly in a worse spot than those born into supportive, wealthy families, with good schools – but that even controlling for all of that, we still have to contend that our thoughts and are actions are not our own, at least not really.

What determines whether someone is going to be Bill Gates or a homeless person is the near infinite series of causes and effects. In other words, why is Bill Gates who he is? Could you have been a billionaire if you just worked harder? Maybe, but if you didn’t work harder then is it because ‘chose’ not to work harder?

Now, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.  As I said earlier, a system of rewards and punishments is quite necessary. Compatibilists like to think that if we acknowledge that there is no free will than we can’t have responsibility and then we’ll do whatever we want – but that’s asinine.  It’s similar to arguing that if there is no god, then we would just go around raping, killing, and doing whatever we want. The logic does not follow. We can build a system that rewards and punishes people based on successes and failures that most benefit society even if we ultimately acknowledge that whether we succeed or fail is not really a function of ourselves.

What does logically follow though is that our understanding of fairness changes.  Rewards and punishments are no longer as extreme. In a world concerned about huge gaps of inequality, the lack of free will is the checkmate. The lack of free will lays out that your successes and failures are not really your own. Rather, they are the product of every experience before us. Systems and societies need to be redesigned to try and ensure that people don’t feel the need to seek out crime. For those that do, punishment serves as a deterrence, protection from society, and rehabilitation.  Notions of retribution and vengeance become barbaric ideas of the past.

Ultimately, a true acknowledgement in our lack of free will changes everything we think we know. Even while acknowledging this truth, we can still accept that there are relative levels of ‘freedom’ that coincide with individual character, volitions, and its predictive nature of future behaviors and subsequently responsibility. By understanding these differences, we can grapple with what a world without free will means and begin to develop a society that embraces it.

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[1]The notion that some events are random or probabilistically determined does not change my view of determinism or incompatibilism.  If it’s true that certain atomic properties behave randomly or stochastically then all that logically follows is that some of my thoughts/actions are random or probabilistically determined. It does not follow that randomness = the ability to choose. All that follows is that choices may be in part influenced by some level of randomness.  Ultimately, I may not be an incompatabilist in the formal sense, but I find the logic easier to explain and subsequently grasp if one begins with determinism as a premise.

[2] ‘Mistake’ may not be the most operative word.  The main argument is that if we truly understood all the causes that led to an action, we would see little difference (aside from the obvious pragamatic reasons outlined), between the two actions.  Because we don’t see all the causes the led to the action, we assign responsibility differently. As an analogy, imagine that a person was under duress to make a decision, but you didn’t know that. Subsequently, you would think he made his decision freely, despite him not having free will, and subsequently would hold him responsible. Now consider the example of the man with the tumor that makes him violent and if/when removed made him not violent. In that case, until we learned about the tumor, we held him responsible for his violent actions, but then once we learned about the tumor, we stopped holding him responsible. Well, if everything is just ‘tumors,’ (billions, trillions of them, all interacting with each other – random or deterministic) but we just don’t know about them, then you can see how we make ‘mistakes’ by holding people responsible.

[3] I don’t know if responsibility is necessary predicated on free will.  One can think of examples in which people are responsible, despite not having any free will in the matter. Consider a driver who slips on black ice and gets into an accident – he is responsible, despite not really having free will in the matter.  Perhaps, one might think that choosing to drive comes with the inherent risks like slipping on black ice.  So consider another example – sitting on a chair at a friends house which breaks.  We might still hold the person responsible to replace it.




3 thoughts on “The Free Will Debate

  1. absurdbeing September 12, 2016 / 8:54 am

    Interesting post. I completely agree with you that compatibilism is a weak position. In their desperation to preserve some form of freewill they degrade it so much it loses the very qualities that make it important to them.

    Not so much a fan of determinism though. It just ignores too much of human experience and in the end must write off our entire mental lives as an illusion.
    The only reason for believing determinism to be true is if we also believe that the physical is all there is. It must then be categorically impossible for me to think about something because it’s incoherent to hold that one clump of matter (electrons, quarks, etc.) can be ‘about’ another clump of matter. But then what am I doing when I am thinking about something? Is this an illusion? Then how is it possible for a mere clump of matter to be deceived ‘about’ something?
    And don’t we already have solid evidence for the existence of something non-physical in thoughts? My thoughts are obviously real but equally obviously not physical. You might be tempted to say my thoughts are my brain but if I am thinking of a dog does that mean my brain (or some part of it) is a dog?

    Clearly we are not completely acausal but the fact that I can take a position on (think ‘about’) those causes and how they affect me seems to imply a degree of separation from them which opens up some space for freewill.

    • playdevilsadvocate September 15, 2016 / 4:12 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      There is one question that I think you need to answer before you can make the claim of non-physicality and that is, if it’s not physical, then what is it?

      I’m actually finishing up a PhD in psychology and while thoughts may seem non-physical, I think the evidence suggests otherwise.

      For example, if I see a dog on the street, how do I know I see a dog on the street? Stimuli from the dog (e.g. photons, etc.) are processed and categorized in my brain. That doesn’t mean that part of my brain is a dog – it means that my brain is processing stimuli to identify a dog.

      When I think of a dog, very similar processes in the brain happen. And one of my areas of research examines the modality of these processes – which basically means, when I interact with a dog in real life – a bunch of things happen in different parts of my brain – my visual cortex, my olfactory cortex, auditory cortex, motor cortex. I also process things in thing like the amygdala and different emotional centers of my brain. Then, when I think of a dog, all of these processes come into play.

      We don’t yet have a full understanding of how these things all interact and become thoughts, but that doesn’t mean there’s some non-matter that is doing it. Consciousness is definitely a ‘hard problem’ but there’s nothing to suggest that it’s not a natural consequence of the properties of matter.

      Simply stated, we know that if we damage certain parts of the brain it interferes with our ability to think or remember and we know that if we stimulate individual neurons, we can actually induce thoughts. So another sub-question would be, if thoughts are not-physical, what would explain that?

      Ultimately, I will never categorically reject the possibility of something existing that we currently don’t understand. Perhaps, there is some form of non-physical matter that interacts outside the laws of the universe. But not only is there no evidence of this non-physical matter, I can’t even begin to comprehend what it is or how it would work.

      • absurdbeing September 18, 2016 / 5:24 am

        This is a very interesting topic and I find myself frequently returning to it.
        You’re right. Thoughts must be a “natural consequence of the properties of matter”. And I am just as sceptical as you are of “non-physical matter” which seems a classic misnomer to me. I am certainly not suggesting there is a non-physical ghost in the machine controlling or organising physical processes in the brain. Rather, my point is that the phenomenological content of thoughts themselves simply cannot be physical.
        A thought of a dog is, without doubt, totally dependent on the (physical) firing of neurons… but that’s not all it is. It is also an image of a black and white border collie which appears in my “mind’s eye”. (This is admittedly imprecise and unscientific language but that is my point; scientific language, in a way, breaks down here) This image is real, obviously not physically real, but it must be real in some sense because I can “see” it. If it was completely bereft of any ontological significance I couldn’t possibly experience it in any way.
        So, the question is, as you correctly identify, what is it? No one knows the answer to that but it seems clear that it (the image in my mind’s eye) is not identical and reducible to electrochemical signals and neuronal activity.
        To bring this back to the topic of your original article, the problem is that if determinism is true, at least one other thing must be true – strict materialism. And this rules out anything in the universe except (non-conscious) fermions and bosons. It’s hard to see how thoughts could appear in such a universe.
        You seem to be (sensibly) cautious of reaching beyond your grasp. I am too. Interestingly, it seems we are just cautious on different sides of this debate. You conclude saying there is “no evidence of non-physical matter”, perhaps throwing in your lot with science and determinism – I would respond that there is evidence of something non-physical, i.e. our thoughts.
        It’s always dangerous to argue with science – historically this has a low probability of success – but from where we stand today thoughts appear to be completely inexplicable within a standard materialist worldview.

        Good luck with the PhD!

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