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Why it matters whether you believe in free will

by Rebecca Roache

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Scientific discoveries about how our behaviour is causally influenced often prompt the question of whether we have free will (for a general discussion, see here). This month, for example, the psychologist and criminologist Adrian Raine has been promoting his new book, The Anatomy of Violence, in which he argues that there are neuroscientific explanations of the behaviour of violent criminals. He argues that these explanations might be taken into account during sentencing, since they show that such criminals cannot control their violent behaviour to the same extent that (relatively) non-violent people can, and therefore that these criminals have reduced moral responsibility for their crimes. Our criminal justice system, along with our conceptions of praise and blame, and moral responsibility more generally, all presuppose that we have free will. If science can reveal it to be an illusion, some of the most fundamental features of our society are undermined.

The questions of exactly what free will is, and whether and how it can accommodate scientific discoveries about the causes of our behaviour, are primarily theoretical philosophical questions. Questions of theoretical philosophy—for example, those relating to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind and language—are rarely viewed as highly relevant to people’s day-to-day lives (unlike questions of practical philosophy, such as those relating to ethics and morality). However, it turns out that the beliefs that people hold about free will are relevant. In the last five years, empirical evidence has linked reduced belief in free will with an increased willingness to cheat,1 increased aggression and reduced helpfulness,2 and reduced job performance.3 Even the way that the brain prepares for action differs depending on whether or not one believes in free will.4 If the results of these studies apply at a societal level, we should be very concerned about promoting the view that we do not have free will. But what can we do about it?

One option, of course, is to censor information that may lead people to reject the idea of free will. This option is a non-starter. For countries that, like the UK, aspire to liberal values (or at least shrink from endorsing values that are clearly illiberal), censoring information that does not pose an immediate threat of harm would be a dangerous step. Whilst data about the effects of disbelief in free will are concerning, they do not provide grounds to conclude that publicising the view that we are unfree poses an immediate threat of harm. (An example of information that poses an immediate threat of harm is a set of non-specialist instructions for secretly sabotaging the brakes on a car, perhaps along with encouragement to do so.)

Perhaps we need not resort to censorship, however. The real problem here is not scientific data about the causal influences on our behaviour, but the associated claims about free will. The claim that such data threaten the idea of free will is generally not made by philosophers, but by scientists, journalists and members of the public. Philosophers, by contrast, tend to be more sceptical of the purported threat to free will (see, for example, the comments by philosophers here). Given free will is a philosophical issue, this suggests that those non-philosophers who believe certain scientific advances to undermine free will are mistaken. We might, then, attempt to counteract the potentially damaging effects of encouraging the public to reject the idea of free will by discouraging scientists, journalists, and others from making philosophical claims that they are not qualified to make. Possible ways of achieving this include promoting philosophical education in general (for example, by teaching philosophy to schoolchildren), fostering collaborative research between theoretical philosophers and scientists, encouraging theoretical philosophers to interact with the media—and perhaps simply by promoting the message that, in general, refuting theoretical philosophical claims involves more than making scientific discoveries.

That people’s beliefs about free will turn out to have important practical implications raises a general question about the relevance of theoretical philosophy. Theoretical philosophers are familiar with comments like ‘This is all very interesting, if pointless’ in response to explaining their research to non-philosophers. But it looks like understanding free will is far from pointless if it prevents one from hastily rejecting it on the basis of empirical evidence, and suffering the behavioural consequences. Further, beliefs about other theoretical philosophical issues have behavioural consequences, too: there is evidence that a belief in mind-body dualism leads to unhealthy choices.5 The same is probably true of other theoretical philosophical beliefs: this is a relatively new field, and no doubt much is yet to be discovered.


1 Vohs, K.D. and Schooler, J.W. 2008: ‘The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating’, Psychological Science 19/1: 49–54.

2 Baumeister, R.F., Masicampo, E.J. and DeWall, C.N. 2009: ‘Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35/2: 260–68.

3 Stillman, T.F., Baumeister, R.F., Vohs, K.D., Lambert, N.M., Fincham, F.D. and Brewer, L.E. 2010: ‘Personal philosophy and personnel achievement: belief in free will predicts better job performance’, Social Psychological and Personality Science 1/1: 43–50.

4 Rigoni, D., Kühn, S., Satori, G. and Brass, M. 2011: ‘Inducing disbelief in free will alters brain correlates of preconscious motor preparation: the brain minds whether we believe in free will or not’, Psychological Science 22/5: 613–18.

5 Forstmann, M., Burgmer, P. and Mussweiler, T. 2012: ‘“The mind is willing but the flesh is weak”: the effects of mind-body dualism on health behavior’, Psychological Science 23/10: 1239–45

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18 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Rebecca

    I was with you until you said ‘given that free will is a philosophical issue’). Well, yes and no. Yes it is treated as such, but if one is fully naturalistic I see no reason why (good) science cannot completely undermine the belief. Of course those of an a priori bent might seek to rescue the belief but the responses and subsequent behaviour strongly suggest to me that the such response reveal more about the ‘content of the concept’ than armchair reflection (which is not to deny that reflection can correct faulty inferences).

    1. Thanks Peter. I should probably have included a ‘primarily’ or an ‘inescapably’ in the bit that you quoted! I agree that science could ultimately undermine the belief that we have free will, but I don’t think that science could alone (i.e. without philosophy) undermine that belief. What is involved in humans having free will depends on what sort of things humans are, and science is far from irrelevant here. But, whilst science can tell what is neuroscientifically, biologically, chemically (etc.) involved in making decisions and executing actions, it can’t tell us whether those decisions and actions are free: that is a philosophical issue. An analogy: supposing that teletransportation were possible, science might be able to tell us exactly what the process involves when a human is teletransported, but philosophy (informed by science) is required to answer the question of whether a teletransported person survives the process—i.e. whether the person who walks into the sending teletransporter is one and the same person who walks out of the receiving teletransporter, or whether the person who walks out is (for example) merely a ‘copy’ of the original.

      1. Ah, we have have different meta-philosophies. I am increasingly sceptical about such a role for philosophy, but those are too large issues to defend here. But I agree with what you say

        1. I’d be very interested in hearing about your scepticism – do let me know if you’ve written elsewhere about it.

  2. As I’ve argued earlier, science certainly shows us that humans have “will”. But I can see little role for the “free” part of the equation in a scientific conception of human nature. Humans can certainly subject their will to all kinds of judicious constraints, but only if it’s in their individual nature to do so. If it’s not in their nature to do so, they may learn to impose various disciplines on their will through this or that learned technique, but again, only if it’s in their nature to be able to achieve such cognitive control. I seriously find it difficult to assign a role to the word “free” in any of these matters. When we’re talking about well-behaved people who choose a peaceful way of life, we’re talking about people whose will tends to be quite tightly constrained, not “free”.

    1. It depends on what you mean by ‘free’. It need not mean ‘uncaused’, for example – and the extent to which it is compatible with the sorts of causes you mention is a matter for debate. I’m not exactly disagreeing with you here – I’m remaining agnostic as to whether we really are free – but I think it is a mistake to try to take a short-cut from premises of the form ‘science shows that human behaviour is causally influenced/determined in ways a, b and c’ to the conclusion ‘free will does not exist’.

      1. Nikolas Schaffer

        “but I think it is a mistake to try to take a short-cut from premises of the form ‘science shows that human behaviour is causally influenced/determined in ways a, b and c’ to the conclusion ‘free will does not exist’.”

        You don’t have to, you just have to acknowledge that the exercise of human will is itself a (dynamic) deterministic process, and that therefore the adjective “free” attached to “will” serves no meaningful purpose (except when we specifically mean people making decisions free of coercion from other people).

  3. The hard naturalism of today’s thought seems hell-bent on disabling free will. But, for it to have any credibility, it must account for two major problems.
    1) The problem of consciousness. If we have no free will why should we possess consciousness? Why would evolution create this complex and costly illusion that we are control of our actions when in fact we are mere passengers in a body that autonomously performs predetermined tasks? What useful role would consciousness have if we are not in control of our actions?
    2) The problem of abstract knowledge. Today we are rapidly creating complex, abstract knowledge that seems unbounded in scope and quantity. Now, if the anti-free will theorists were correct, all of this knowledge is predetermined in our biology. How then is it possible that we are capable of creating unrelated, abstract knowledge? How is it possible that we can create an endless variety and quantity of knowledge if this was all predetermined by our existing biology? There is seemingly no limit to the knowledge we can create but there are definite limits to our biology. Yet, possessing no free will must necessarily mean we are strictly bounded by our biology.

    1. Nikolas Schaffer

      “Why would evolution create this complex and costly illusion that we are control of our actions when in fact we are mere passengers in a body that autonomously performs predetermined tasks?”

      Acknowledging that the brain works deterministically does not mean “we are mere passengers in a body that autonomously performs predetermined tasks”. On the contrary, the self-awareness we experience is an essential part of that dynamic determinstic process. By “dynamic” I mean that the workings of the brain are themselves responsible for variable deterministic outcomes, in accord with all kinds of chosen (and innate) criteria. In terms of “cause & effect” you can think of the brain’s workings as a complex pinball machine that continuously redesigns its internal mechanisms to favour outcomes compatible with relevant data that serve as criteria for all kinds of decision-making.

      This powerful brain ensures that the range of behavioural options open to us is far wider than for other animals, and thus it’s meaningful to think of ourselves as creatures of “will” rather than “instinct” alone. But philosophers really need to ask themselves: does adding the word “free” add anything of value that’s not adequately covered by the term “will” itself, or does it just render the concept pointlessly inexplicable?

      1. At its heart your argument is that our brain is a vast series of immensely complex deterministic causal chains that are dynamic, or self modifying.
        You have failed to show that a causal chain needs consciousness. Adding complexity does not change its innate nature, it remains a causal chain where outcomes are predetermined and therefore does not need consciousness. Making it dynamic, or self modifying still does not change its essential nature as a causal chain, obviously because the nature of the self-modifying act also works according to causality. Adding an immense range of sensors that convey information about its environment and its state only makes it aware in a trivial sense in the same way my program is aware when I add a large range of sensors. Causality only requires this trivial awareness, not consciousness, when presented with inputs from sensors.

        Any outcome of a complex causal sequences could, by your definition, be described as will. Consciousness adds the “free” part that you are trying to deny. How could consciousness possibly make a difference to a deterministic causal chain? Complexity, dynamism and randomness don’t change the innate nature of a causal chain, they merely make it very hard to trace the causal chain in detail. But it remains a causal chain where consciousness has no necessary role.

        Finally you say “does it just render the concept pointlessly inexplicable?” and I think this is the heart of the problem. Consciousness is inexplicable and an apparent contradiction of causality. In reaction you have chosen to deny the inexplicable. But is that a rational response? Cosmology, when confronted with inexplicable behaviour in the expansion of the universe and the rotation of galaxies invented two new concepts to ‘explain’ this behaviour, dark energy and dark matter. Those concepts themselves are inexplicable, for the time being, so all they have done is move the problem. But that is how science works and makes progress. It does not make progress by denying the existence of a powerful phenomenon ( free will) that is universally experienced.

        I suspect that powerful metaphysical prejudices underlie the resistance to the concept of free will. But be careful, that is the road to preconceptual science.

        1. In the third paragraph “consciousness is inexplicable” read as “free will is inexplicable”.

        2. Nikolas Schaffer

          “Adding complexity does not change its innate nature, it remains a causal chain where outcomes are predetermined”

          It’s the brain that’s doing the determining, and what we call consciousness is an essential part of that process. You’re confusing cognitive determinism (our experience of the universe and the willful decisions we make within it) with a concept of cosmological determinism, where “everything is predetermined”, but that’s a speculative perspective that humans could never experience even if it were true.

          “Consciousness adds the “free” part that you are trying to deny. How could consciousness possibly make a difference to a deterministic causal chain?”

          Consciousness is clearly part of the deterministic causal chain used in many willful decisions. When we consciously identify the criteria relevant to a decision and compare their relative significance (“weigh the pros and cons” etc) we’re undertaking a deterministic process that is clearly different from the “subconscious” exercise of will, and which is essential to many of the highly complex behaviours in which humans engage. Conscious decision-making is willful in the sense of being a deliberate, dynamic intervention in our experience of the world, but is certainly not “free” in the sense of being non-deterministic in nature (and certainly not random) so once again you haven’t really provided any meaningful role for this adjective.

          “Consciousness is inexplicable and an apparent contradiction of causality.”

          No, it’s just a particular kind of brain function.

          1. The moment you accept causal determinism in its entirety, you need to accept that cognitive determinism and cosmological determinism are one and the same thing. If not you must explain the difference. What is the difference? Why should there be a difference?

            It’s the brain that’s doing the determining, and what we call consciousness is an essential part of that process.

            Sure, the brain is the substrate. We all know that but it does not constitute an explanation. A CPU is the substrate for a program but that does not explain the operation of the program.
            What makes consciousness an essential part of the process?
            You claim that this is the case but give no grounds for your claim whatsoever.
            A cause produces an effect.
            The effect is produced by laws of science acting as a result of a stimulus and the existing conditions.

            What has conciousness got to do with that?

            Conscious decision-making is willful in the sense of being a deliberate, dynamic intervention in our experience of the world, but is certainly not “free”
            If it is not free then there is no need for there to be consciousness. It is going to happen regardless.
            If a deliberate, dynamic intervention is not free then the outcome is necessarily predetermined.
            All we have is consciousness riding on the illusion of will, which is bizarre and unnecessary.

            No, it’s just a particular kind of brain function.
            You have ignored my correction in the first line of the third paragraph. Why?
            But yes, consciousness is to date inexplicable as is free will, which is what my correction said.

            Because free will is inexplicable you deny it. It may be that you lack some essential knowledge which is why I quoted the example of the dark energy and dark matter hypotheses.
            It is irrational to deny something merely because it is inexplicable.

            1. Nikolas Schaffer

              “The moment you accept causal determinism in its entirety, you need to accept that cognitive determinism and cosmological determinism are one and the same thing. If not you must explain the difference. What is the difference? Why should there be a difference?”

              We inevitably experience cognitive determinism whether or not the universe is fundamentally deterministic. The universe might be more fundamentally random than deterministic, with deterministic histories arising simply because they’re all part of what’s possible. But the important point is that even if we are part of a rigidly deterministic causal history (whether that is “local” or “cosmic”), the exercise of human will is clearly an essential part of that history – not an “illusion” but a deterministic process necessary for the realisation of the history in which we partake.

              “What makes consciousness an essential part of the process?”

              When I say consciousness is an essential part of human will, I mean that we are not going to be able to do what humans do without it. Humans have deterministically changed the world in all kinds of ways that could not be achieved by animals bereft of conscious will. As for consciousness being an essential process of the human brain, this is known to medical science as a fact. We can influence consciousness in all kinds of ways by means of various drugs and other stimuli working directly on the brain, and modern surgery relies on our ability to temporarily turn it off altogether.

              “If it is not free then there is no need for there to be consciousness. It is going to happen regardless.”

              This seems to be your central mistake. In order to produce the outcomes that are the result of human intervention in the world, any causal history clearly requires the exercise of human will. It’s not going to happen otherwise. You seem to think there’s some reason why the exercise of conscious will (which is deterministic both in its nature and effects) can’t be counted as part of a causal history, but you offer no explanation for this strange notion.

              “Because free will is inexplicable you deny it”

              “Free will” is an attempt to render an explicable notion (human will) inexplicable by claiming, with no justification, that it is not deterministic in nature. But as I’ve been arguing, determinism is part of the essential definition of “will”. It’s a guided selection process that favours certain outcomes over others, as opposed to random outcomes.

  4. To quote Isaiah Berlin

    If social and psychological determinism were established as an accepted truth, our world would be transformed more radically than was the teleological world of the classical and middle ages by the triumphs of mechanistic principles or those of natural selection. Our words – our modes of speech and thought – would be transformed in literally unimaginable ways; the notions of choice, of responsibility, of freedom, are so deeply embedded in our outlook that our new life, as creatures in a world genuinely lacking in these concepts, can, I should maintain, be conceived by us only with the greatest difficulty. But there is, as yet, no need to alarm ourselves unduly. (‘Four Essays of Liberty’. OUP, 1969, p.113)

    I think it is now time to be a little alarmed that the claim that there is sufficient empirical evidence to falsify free will could become generally accepted in the not too distant future. Indeed, it could be argued that there is already considerable support for determinism when it is asserted as being an established fact that “the human brain is a computer“. This is true if we assume that the brain belongs to the class of all machines called computers. However, this does not entitle us to group the brain in the digital machine subclass, and then claim that this means a digital machine will in the next few decades be able to imitate human intelligence, i.e. pass the Turing test. AI researchers have been making this claim for over sixty years without any success and have now for the most part given up trying to pass Turing’s simple little test. Nonetheless these failures have not stopped most people, including scientist and many philosophers, in believing that the human brain is “some kind of a digital information processing machine, etc. etc. etc..” This was predicted by Alan Turing in his seminal 1950 paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ when he wrote

    …that by the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that we will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

    He is not at this point predicting when a machine will pass his test. What he correctly foresees is the process of laying the ground before the test is passed. This is somewhat different from the science driven process Berlin describes, where our words and thoughts are altered because determinism is established by science to be true. The ‘artificial intelligentsia’, as Louis Fein dubbed them, can count many philosophers among its numbers, it being them that have created much of the AI myth that is believed by scientist, the media and public..

    I am not suggesting that philosophers should simply reject determinism, but, as AI demonstrates, they should not allow themselves to be carried away by this age old problem because brain scientist think they have the answer. We should remind ourselves of what kind object they believe they are observing to understand how wrong they could be. You are right, philosophers need to up their game.

  5. I agree with Rebecca when she says that it is a mistake to take a short cut from ‘science shows that human behaviour is causally influenced/determined in ways a, b and c’ to the conclusion ‘free will does not exist’. The idea that either ‘free will’ or ‘determinism’ must be eliminated is a sign that we are thinking in a dualistic way, as in the imaginary battle between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

    Scientists always interpret their experiments according to the model of the universe which they believe to be the most accurate. It is possible for a measurement to be absolutely correct, but for the model to be incorrect. Nineteenth century phrenology, and its measurements of the face, would be an example. Faces were measured accurately, but the deterministic model – which held that personality types can be determined from faces – was wrong. Another example would be alchemical worldviews from the medieval period up to the 18th century (Isaac Newton believed in alchemy). While the chemical experiments that many alchemists carried out were actually accurate and led to scientific progress, their model of the universe needed upgrading.

  6. I’m a little late for this conversation, but I would just like to point out that claims to any sort of knowledge that human beings lack libertarian free will (in some form) are self-refuting. Free will is a precondition of all knowledge, including scientific knowledge. Without a choice in thought, we cannot choose to conform our thought to facts. On the premise of determinism, if we believe something “false,” there was never any possibility of not believing it, in favor of something “true.” There is no way to guide ourselves to true ideas, including the alleged truth of determinism. What ideas each person will accept has already been predetermined, such that “truth” and “falsehood” become meaningless: we will all accept what we accept and do what we will do, period.

    The fundamental choice of when to focus one’s mind is caused by the agent, not prior events. (It is the Fallacy of Composition to say that atoms and molecules are determined, therefore the human composed of them is determined. Just as it would be that fallacy to say that atoms and molecules are not conscious, therefore the human composed of them is not.)

    I recommend this post and its associated links:

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