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In philosophy the term free will refers to consideration of whether an individual has the ability to make decisions or, alternatively, has only the illusion of doing so. It is an age-old concern to separate what we can do something about, choose to do, from what we cannot. The underlying quandary is the idea that science suggests future events are dictated to a great extent, and perhaps entirely, by past events and, inasmuch as the human body is part of the world science describes, its actions also are determined by physical laws and are not affected by human decisions. This view of events is a particular form of determinism, sometimes called physical reductionism,[1] and the view that determinism precludes free will is called incompatibilism.[2]

There are several ways to avoid the incompatibilst position, resulting in various compatibilist positions.[3] One is to limit the scope of scientific description in a manner that excludes human decisions. Another is to argue that even if our actions are strictly determined by the past, it doesn’t seem that way to us, and so we have to find an approach to this issue that somehow marries our intuition of independence with the reality of its fictional nature. A third, somewhat legalistic approach, is to suggest that the ‘will’ to do something is quite different from actually doing it, so ‘free will’ can exist even though there may be no freedom of action.

There is also a theological version of the dilemma. roughly, if a deity or deities, or 'fate', controls our destiny, what place is left for free will?

Science does not apply

One approach to limiting the applicability of science to our decisions is the examination of the notion of cause and effect. For example, David Hume suggested that science did not really deal with causality, but with the correlation of events. So, for example, lighting a match in a certain environment does not ‘’cause’’ an explosion, but is ‘’associated’’ with an explosion. Immanuel Kant suggested that the idea of cause and effect is not a fact of nature but an interpretation put on events by the human mind, a ‘programming’ built into our brains. Assuming this criticism to be true, there may exist classes of events that escape any attempt at cause and effect explanations.

A different way to exempt human decision from the scientific viewpoint is to note that science is a human enterprise. It involves the human creation of theories to explain certain observations, and moreover, the observations it chooses to attempt to explain are selected, and do not encompass all experience. For example, we choose to explain phenomena like the Higgs boson found by elaborate means like a hadron collider, but don’t attempt to explain other phenomena that do not appear amenable to science at this time, often suggesting that they are beneath attention. As time progresses, one may choose to believe that science will explain all experience, but that view must be regarded as speculation analogous to predicting the stock market on the basis of past performance.

Although not explicitly addressing the issue of free will, it may be noted that Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the specialized theories of science, as discussed by Rudolf Carnap for example, inevitably cover only a limited range of experience. Hawking/Mlodinow also noted this fact in in their model-dependent realism,[4] the observation that, from the scientific viewpoint, reality is covered by a patchwork of theories that are sometimes disjoint and sometimes overlap.

“Whatever might be the ultimate goals of some scientists, science, as it is currently practiced, depends on multiple overlapping descriptions of the world, each of which has a domain of applicability. In some cases this domain is very large, but in others quite small.”[5]
—— E.B. Davies Epistemological pluralism, p. 4

Still another approach to this matter is analysis of the mind-brain connection (more generally, the mind-body problem). As suggested by Northoff,[6] there is an observer-observation issue involved here. Observing a third-person’s mental activity is a matter for neuroscience, perhaps strictly a question of neurons and their interactions through complex networks. But observing our own mental activity is not possible in this way – it is a matter of subjective experiences. The suggestion has been made that ‘’complementary’’ descriptions of nature are involved, that may be simply different perspectives upon the same reality:

“...for each individual there is one 'mental life' but two ways of knowing it: first-person knowledge and third-person knowledge. From a first-person perspective conscious experiences appear causally effective. From a third person perspective the same causal sequence can be explained in neural terms. It is not the case that the view from one perspective is right and the other wrong. These perspectives are complementary. The differences between how things appear from a first-person versus a third-person perspective has to do with differences in the observational arrangements (the means by which a subject and an external observer access the subject's mental processes).”[7]

—Max Velmans: , How could conscious experiences affect brains?, p. 11

A related view is that the two descriptions may be mutually exclusive. That is, the connection between subjective experience and neuronal activity may run into a version of the measurement-observation interference noticed by Niels Bohr and by Erwin Schrödinger in the early days of quantum mechanics. (The measurement of the position of a particle caused the particle to change position in an unknown way.)

“ is important to be clear about exactly what experience one wants one's subjects to introspect. Of course, explaining to subjects exactly what the experimenter wants them to experience can bring its own problems–...instructions to attend to a particular internally generated experience can easily alter both the timing and he content of that experience and even whether or not it is consciously experienced at all.”[8]

—Susan Pockett , The neuroscience of movement

In any case, so far as free will is concerned, the implication of 'complementarity' is that 'free will' may be a description that is either an alternative to the scientific view, or possibly a view that can be entertained only if the scientific view is abandoned.

Science can be accommodated

A second approach is to argue that we can accommodate our subjective notions of free will with a deterministic reality. One way to do this is to argue that although we cannot do differently, in fact we really don’t want to do differently, and so what we ‘decide’ to do always agrees with what we (in fact) have to do. Our subjective vision of the decision process as ‘voluntary’ is just a conscious concomitant of the unconscious and predetermined move to action.

’Will’ versus ‘action’

There is growing evidence of the pervasive nature of subconscious thought upon our actions, and the capriciousness of consciousness,[9] which may switch focus from a sip of coffee to the writing of a philosophical exposition without warning. There also is mounting evidence that our consciousness is greatly affected by events in the brain beyond our control. For example, drug addiction has been related to alteration of the mechanisms in the brain for dopamine production, and withdrawal from addiction requires a reprogramming of this mechanism that is more than a simple act of will. The ‘will’ to overcome addiction can become separated from the ability to execute that will.

“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’.”[Italics not in original.][10]

— Timothy O'Connor , Free Will

In effect, could the 'will' be a subjective perception which might operate outside the realm of scientific principle, while its execution is not?


The ancient Greeks held the view that the gods could intervene in the course of events, and it was possible on occasion to divine their intentions or even to change them. That view leaves a role for free will, although it can be limited in scope by the gods. A more complete restriction is the belief that the gods are omniscient and have perfect foreknowledge of events, which obviously includes human decisions. This view leads to the belief that, while the gods know what we will choose, humans do not, and are faced therefore with playing the role of deciding our actions, even though they are scripted, a view contradicted by Cassius in arguing with Brutus, a Stoic:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

—spoken by Cassius, Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

The Stoics wrestled with this problem, and one argument for compatibility took the view that although the gods controlled matters, what they did was understandable using human intellect. Hence, when fate presented us with an issue, there was a duty to sort through a decision, and assent to it (a responsibility), a sequence demanded by our natures as rational beings.[11]

In Chrysippus of Soli's view (an apologist for Stoicism), fate precipitates an event, but our nature determines its course, in the same way that bumping a cylinder or a cone causes it to move, but it rolls or it spins according to its nature.[12] The actual course of events depends upon the nature of the individual, who therefore bears a personal responsibility for the resulting events. It is not clear whether the individual is thought to have any control over their nature, or even whether this question has any bearing upon their responsibility.[13]


  1. Alyssa Ney (November 10, 2008). Reductionism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. Kadri Vihvelin (Mar 1, 2011). Edward N. Zalta, ed.: Arguments for Incompatibilism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition).
  3. Kevin Timpe (March 31, 2006). Free will. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  4. Hawking SW, Mlodinow L. (2010). “Chapter 3: What is reality?”, The Grand Design. Bantam Books, pp. 42-43. ISBN 0553805371. 
  5. E Brian Davies (2006). Epistemological pluralism. PhilSci Archive.
  6. A rather extended discussion is provided in Georg Northoff (2004). Philosophy of the Brain: The Brain Problem, Volume 52 of Advances in Consciousness Research. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 1588114171. 
  7. Max Velmans (2002). "How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains?". Journal of Consciousness Studies 9 (11): pp. 2-29.
  8. Susan Pockett (2009). “The neuroscience of movement”, Susan Pockett, WP Banks, Shaun Gallagher, eds.:  Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?. MIT Press, p. 19. ISBN 0262512572. 
  9. Tor Nørretranders (1998). “Preface”, The user illusion: Cutting consciousness down to size, Jonathan Sydenham translation of Maerk verden 1991 ed. Penguin Books, p. ix. ISBN 0140230122. “Consciousness plays a far smaller role in human life than Western culture has tended to believe” 
  10. O'Connor, Timothy (Oct 29, 2010). Edward N. Zalta, ed.: Free Will. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition).
  11. Susanne Bobzien (1998). Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198237944.  See §6.3.3 The cylinder and cone analogy, pp. 258 ff.
  12. Susanne Bobzien (1998). Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198237944.  See in particular pp. 386 ff.
  13. Susanne Bobzien (1998). Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198237944.  See in particular p. 255.