Surely You Don’t Believe You Have Free Will?!

Road ClosedWhether or not we have the degree of free will most of us like to believe we have, I don’t see how that would be a get-out-of-jail-free card. When it comes to being held responsible for our actions—however determined—we are.

Strict determinism, the kind that says everything we do is already set for us, would mean that if you go far enough back in time, or manage to obtain a “high” enough perspective to see every single pattern of actions unfolding from one to the next, then you have no free will, no way to make your own choices.

No one can get that kind of omniscient perspective, however, and that is clear to atheists. No God or gods, no supernatural being to set it all in motion or to direct it one way or another. The best science can do, for now, is trace an action back in time as far as possible in order to make good guesses as to all the predetermining factors that went into a particular decision by a particular person at a specific point in time. Both psychology, neuroscience, and physics are helpful in such lookings-back.


Based on my own education in social psychology and human development, my philosophical views are grounded in humanism. The fact is that we all make decisions based on what we know at the time, what we believe to be true or the way our brains are habituated to come to conclusions. That resembles like a form of free will, though mitigated by all that we don’t know or that we misbelieve or a lack of imagination of options that might indeed be available to us at any turning point.

If we’re necessarily ignorant of many of the factors that have gone into any one of our choices, does that mean we’re blameless for our “mistakes,” for our actions that are deemed immoral by most other individuals? Sometimes I figure it doesn’t matter where we place actual blame, because, as a society, a group of people attempting to live peacefully with one another, the greatest good is to agree on a few major points of law and then to corral bad actors away from the rest of us.


A good definition of free will is that we can imagine future courses of action, decide which one to pursue regardless of competing desires we may have, and that we make such decisions without unreasonable external or internal pressure. Such free will is not magical, nor does it depend on a soul or suchlike which is totally free of any physical process. Our decisions are not determined in such a way that they aren’t influenced by our conscious thoughts. We would hate to think that no matter what we try to do, our decisions are inevitable.

The findings of neuroscience suggest that our actions (little ones, like pressing a button) are caused by unconscious processes that don’t even enter our awareness until a bit later. That certain neural activity precedes “decisions” doesn’t mean you have no choice. But it may mean that we probably do have less free will than we think.

I particularly like the sophisticated comment someone (R.A.) posted on

I would argue that as we approach making a decision, we observe competing outcome scenarios predicted by subconscious processes. We then sense how we feel about these scenarios based on dopamine production. Our feelings can then influence the subconscious creating more nuanced outcome scenarios. All of this happens again and again in the nonlinear environment of the brain and is subjected to all kinds of butterfly effects. Eventually the decision happens and we act. Our recollection of how the scenarios changed based on our emotional responses makes some of us think we had complete control over the outcome.


Free WillA recent book showcases its stance by its title: Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (Lexington Books, 2013). It’s a compilation of 16 essays (all but one original for this volume), edited by Gregg D. Caruso, assistant professor of philosophy and chair of the humanities department at Corning Community College, SUNY. The contributors are an international array of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, many of them also professors and authors.

One of the issues explored in the volume is what is the responsibility of professionals in light of the way the mass media headlines the scientific claim that free will probably doesn’t exist. Will individuals and crowds run around doing horrible things (more than usual!)? Some worry about that possibility, while other essayists contend that our lives wouldn’t significantly change if we accepted a lack of free will.

The authors of one chapter that tackles a possible “dark side of believing in free will,” admits that the research thus far is “preliminary and messy,” but suggests that a belief in free will seems to correlate with a belief in right-wing authoritarianism, among other things.

The topic of moral responsibility is a huge and complicated one, and I relish the idea that academics and others are debating it. Can we agree that we should be held morally responsible even if we accept that our stance is based on non-philosophical reasons? I’d like to think so.

Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility is a terrifically clear book and a welcome addition to the debate about free will. (An academic book, it’s thus rather expensive, but the Kindle version is a third the cost of the hardcover.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.

  • Dan Arel

    One of the most troubling quotes from Robert Blatchford’s book “Not Guilty”, and a quote I use so often when discussing free will:

    We are to ask whether it is true that everything a man does is the only thing he could do, at the instant of his doing it.

    This is a very important question, because if the answer is yes, all praise and all blame are undeserved.

    All praise and all blame.

    • Msironen

      That might be, but we still should blame people for socially disruptive actions and praise them for socially beneficial ones; this because most of us are “wired” to seek praise and avoid blame. Unless of course you don’t care about societal harmony (then again the vast majority of us do).

    • MNb

      “all praise and all blame are undeserved.”
      That’s a non-sequitur, for the simple reason that that praise and blame also influence decision making.

    • ortcutt

      You have heard of the possibility of Compatibilism, right? It’s not some fringe position. Most philosophers you meet in the Anglo-American world think that Compatibilism is true and most of those think that determinism (whether true or not) is perfectly compatible with moral responsibility. You should check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Compatibilism is you’re not familiar with the concept.

  • MNb

    “Strict determinism …..”

    has been undermined by modern physics since 80 years or so.

    “that we make such decisions without unreasonable external or internal pressure.”

    How do you decide which factors provide reasonable and which ones unreasonable pressure? This smells like an is-ought fallacy to me.

    “That certain neural activity precedes “decisions” doesn’t mean you have no choice.”

    While I tend to agree I also think you need to explain this.

    “Can we agree that we should be held morally responsible even if we accept that our stance is based on non-philosophical reasons?”
    Yes – and so does JA Coyne, a radical anti free willer.

    • Dan Arel

      I wonder what you mean by undermined by modern physics, because many physicists do not believe in free will. One more recent quote from Brian Greene:

      “Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

      That is hard determinism.

      • MNb

        As soon as Brian Greene or someone else is able to determine at what moment exactly a radioactive atom will decay I will take his remark seriously – and he will win the Nobel Price. Until then I will rely on Stephen Hawking’s A brief History of Time, chapter one, where he writes that quantummechanics buried hard determinism a la Lamarck. The point is: if we can’t determine the behaviour of such small particles (only describe them in terms of probability), how are we supposed to determine the future?
        For more details I refer you to the Wikipedia page on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that we can’t determine velocity and position exactly and that this is a fundamental feature of our Universe. The next step is an introductory textbook on quantummechanics.

        • indorri

          If I understand correctly, this is an issue if you interpret measurements as a wavefunction collapse, but determinism is maintained in the many-worlds interpretation.

          • MNb

            This issue is only shifted. Given a world out of many it is determined at what moment exactly the radioactive atom will decay. But it is impossible to determine which world out of many will be the future.

    • Msironen

      “Yes – and so does JA Coyne, a radical anti free willer.”

      Coyne’s position AFAIK is that we should be held responsible and that adding “morally” in front of it is superfluous:

  • matthej3
  • Y. A. Warren

    I believe the exercise of free will is what makes a person fully human. Whether or not to exercise our free will is also a function of free will. Not all are capable of this exercise, as their judgement centers are damaged. For these, the carrot and stick of religion may make sense.