Photo by Rafa Elias/Getty



How to think about free will

You can’t escape cause and effect, but there is a way of viewing human agency that is motivating, plausible and humane

Photo by Rafa Elias/Getty





Julian Baggini

is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is How to Think Like a Philosopher (2023).

Edited by Nigel Warburton





Need to know

Are you reading this as a result of your own free choice? It certainly seems as though you are. After all, surely you could have read something else, or done something completely different. We feel that we are free, the originators of our own choices, not just conduits through which the chain of cause and effect flows. But think about it a little more and this ‘voluntarist’ conception of free will starts to look untenable.

All your choices are in a sense inevitable

Go back to when you saw the headline or link to this piece. Given the ‘choice environment’ you found yourself in – your history, your personality, the other options open to you, your mood, your schedule – wasn’t it inevitable that you were either going to start reading, save it for later or move on to something else? And as you now decide to continue to read or not, are you really in control of how intrigued or irritated you are by the words in front of you?

Nothing you could do could defeat these worries. Maybe you’re tempted to stop reading now as a demonstration of your freedom to choose. But if you did, wouldn’t that also be just what you were always going to do, given how you react to reading this sort of stuff? It’s like the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) by Tom Stoppard in which the two protagonists, who are on a ship, get the sense that they are just pawns in a bigger game. ‘I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel,’ says Rosencrantz. ‘Unless they’re counting on it,’ replies Guildenstern.

But if it is true of every choice that we could not have done otherwise, the implications quickly become disturbing. What do we say about the burglar or fraudster? What about the violence of the abusive spouse or the date-rapist? And why praise heroic actions if the life-savers and riskers could not have done otherwise? Both blame and praise seem to become redundant, leaving no justice in reward or punishment.

There’s no escaping the chain of cause and effect

Little wonder that many are keen to save the concept of voluntarist free will. But giving up the idea that every action, every word has an inevitability would also seem to require us to deny the most well-established laws of nature. We live in a universe that is governed by cause and effect. Nothing happens without a cause and none of those causes is a choice.

Whenever people think through the implications of living in an entirely naturalistic universe, without any supernatural agency, doubts follow about free will. For example, the 1st-century poet Lucretius wrote in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things):

… if ev’r all motions are co-linked
And from the old ever arise the new …
Whence this free will for creatures o’er the lands,
Whence is it wrested from the fates? …

Quantum physics may tell us that some causes are probabilistic and so do not strictly determine their effects. But the randomness of quantum causation is no refuge for the notion of free will. Freedom is not the ability to act randomly, without any control about what effects follow.

The final nail in free will’s coffin seems to come from neuroscience. Various brain studies have claimed to show that actions are initiated in the brain before we have any awareness of having made a decision. In other words, the thought ‘I’ll choose that’ comes after the choice is made. Actions are determined by unconscious, unchosen brain processes, and the feeling of having made a decision comes later. On this view, believing that these thoughts have any role in determining what we do would be like mistaking the noise made by an engine for the force that powers it.

Voluntarist free will therefore appears to be an illusion. No matter how free we feel, our understanding of nature tells us that no choice originates in us but traces its history throughout our histories and our environments. Even leaving aside physics, it seems obvious that, at the moment of any choice, the conditions for that choice have already been set, and to be able to escape them would be no more than the ability to generate random actions. And if all that is true, praise, blame and responsibility look like illusions too.

Is it therefore time to accept that we are just biological machines, intelligent apes fooled by our perceptions into believing that we are above nature?

Think it through

If we are to save free will, it would be quixotic to try to deny both the findings of neuroscience and the fact that the world is governed by laws of physical cause and effect. A better strategy is to think again about what free will means. If we do that, we can see that the voluntarist account is highly suspicious.

Having voluntarist free will would mean being entirely capricious

Take the assumption that we would be robbed of an essential human capacity for choice if our decisions were in any sense inevitable. But imagine what would need to be true for your choice not to have been inevitable. It would mean that you had the power to override your settled preferences, personality and life history, and could decide to do something that is not determined by these but only by something we call your ‘free will’. Such a freedom would be gratuitous, since the only grounds for our choice would be the power to choose itself. Is pure caprice really a form of free will worth wanting?

To take a trivial example, we don’t want the capacity to choose any flavour of ice-cream but the one we think we’ll most enjoy. We don’t want the capacity to vote for any political party but the one that we think will most advance our values. Our freedom to choose matters precisely because it reflects our personalities, preferences and values, not because it can override them. Our moral and political commitments would mean nothing if they were things we could choose to change at will.

The constraints upon our choices allow for the concept of character

As David Hume argued, it is both inevitable and desirable that every choice we make will be the one that, at the time, best matches our motivations, conscious and unconscious. We would have no moral character if we did not strongly feel that there were things we could simply not do, and others we felt we must. Human society depends upon the fact that we can expect people to behave with the same kind of regularity and predictability as the rest of nature. Were that not so, you’d never know what gift to give to a friend or have any reason to commit to a long-term relationship, since you would have no idea if the person in question was going to change their tastes or lose their lovable features.

Praise and blame don’t depend on absolute freedom

The idea that we need the concept of voluntarist free will for praise and blame, reward and punishment is also highly questionable. The major philosophical justifications for punishment are retribution, deterrence, reform of the offender and signalling societal disapproval. Of these, only the first requires voluntarist free will for its justification, and many find the notion of retribution repugnant in any case.

A rethink of free will requires not the abandonment of the idea of responsibility but its reform. No one is ultimately responsible for who they are, nor therefore for what they have done. But responsibility does not need to be ultimate to be real. Responsibility is not given out whole and complete at birth but is something we learn to take more of. To accept that one has done wrong and take responsibility for it is to resolve to try not to do it again and to put right anything that went wrong. We evidently do have the capacity to do this, and that is all that matters. Whether at some fundamental level these responses are inevitable is beside the point.

It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction

To the extent that the idea of free will involves some fictions, this could be a good thing, as long as we are aware that they are fictions. Take the idea that we ‘could have done otherwise’, so central to the free will debate. There is a sense in which this is never literally true. But the thought that we could have done otherwise is neither meaningless nor useless.

In his book Freedom Evolves (2004), Daniel Dennett illustrates this with the example, borrowed from John Austin, of a golfer who misses an easy putt, and then thinks: ‘I could have holed it.’ If you think this means that, were time to be rewound to the moment the golfer played the shot, then she could have played it differently, you’d be wrong. The golfer herself probably doesn’t mean that either. Rather, she means that holing the shot was well within her skillset, and that this was the kind of shot she would usually pull off.

The thought ‘I could have holed it’ does not therefore serve to inform us of an alternative reality that didn’t come to pass. It is to focus the mind of the golfer on the mistake so that she doesn’t repeat it next time, perhaps by making her think about what it was that made her slip up.

All ‘could have done otherwise’ thoughts have a similar value and function. It is only because we reflect on the things that could so easily have been done differently if conditions or our frame of mind had been slightly different that we learn to take responsibility and do better next time. Such helpful thoughts differ from others when we could not have done differently in any comparable situation. There is a sense in which the golfer could not have done otherwise, whether she missed an easy shot or an almost impossible one. But whereas it makes sense to think about the easy miss as something that could have been avoided, it serves no purpose to think about the impossible shot in the same way.

So even if we don’t have what has traditionally been called free will, that may not be as disastrous as it sounds. Our actions should flow from the beliefs, desires and personalities that we have, otherwise they would not be the actions of people with consistent characters and values. Reward and punishment are still important because we need to encourage ourselves and others to do the right things. And even thoughts like ‘I could have done otherwise’, although not literally true, are necessary for self-monitoring and improvement.

Don’t reject the concept of ‘free will’: rethink it

In giving up the voluntarist conception, we don’t have to throw out the notion of free will altogether. Free will isn’t an illusion, it’s just that the voluntarist conception of free will is flawed and untenable. It understands the free/unfree distinction to hinge upon whether our beliefs, desires and choices have causes or not, which is ridiculous, since obviously everything is caused. What we need is a ‘compatibilist’ conception of free will, one that reconciles human freedom with the causal necessity of the physical world.

Such a conception is hiding in plain sight, in the ways in which we distinguish between free and unfree actions in real life. We rarely, if ever, ground this distinction in a metaphysical thesis about causation. Rather, we distinguish between coerced and uncoerced choices. If no one ‘made me do it’, I acted freely.

Worries about free will tend to shift these coercive forces to within us, most obviously when people say: ‘My brain made me do it.’ But ‘your brain’ can’t make ‘you’ do anything, unless ‘you’ is something separate from your brain. If your brain is part of you, ‘my brain made me do it’ makes no sense. After all, if your brain wasn’t key to your decision-making, what else could be? Your immaterial soul? It is telling that almost everyone who defends voluntarist free will answers ‘yes’ to this ostensibly rhetorical question and has a religious belief in such souls. For those of us who accept the materiality of human animals, this option is a non-starter.

Achieve a free will worth having by aligning your first- and second-order desires

It is not quite enough, however, to say that, as long as choices are not coerced, they are free. Bees are not forced to spread pollen at gunpoint but their behaviours are too automatic to be classed as free. Similarly, highly automatic or unreflective human behaviours, such as addictive consumption, don’t seem to be genuinely free either. So what elevates some human choices to the genuinely free rather than the merely unforced?

The best answer to this remains Harry Frankfurt’s influential theory about the difference between first- and second-order desires. Our first-order desires are the ones we just have: for a piece of cake, to have sex, to scratch our itching skin. Second-order desires are desires about these desires. I may not want to want to eat cake, because I’m trying to eat more healthily. I may not want to want to have sex because the object of my desire is not the person I am in a monogamous relationship with.

Frankfurt says that we have the kind of free will worth having when our first- and second-order desires are aligned and we act on them. When we choose to do something that, all things considered, we don’t want to do, we have failed to exercise our free will and have behaved compulsively. If we haven’t even thought about whether we desire a desire, we are not exercising our free will if we unthinkingly act on it.

Second-order desires do not escape the chains of cause and effect. At bottom, they are the result of a series of events that we did not choose. But nothing we can do can be freely chosen ‘all the way down’. No one can choose the things that most fundamentally shape them: their genes, society and family. Not even God would be free to change its nature, if it existed.

Recognising the free will we do have requires accepting that complete freedom is an impossibility. To have free will is no more nor less than to be free enough to choose for ourselves on the basis of reasons that we endorse on reflection.

Key points – How to think about free will

  1. All your choices are in a sense inevitable. A lot of the time, you might feel as though you have freedom to act as you wish (a view known as ‘voluntarism’), but taking into account your history, personality, mood and other factors, there is in fact an inevitability to everything you do.
  2. There’s no escaping the chain of cause and effect. Even quantum physics and the randomness of quantum causation cannot offer us an escape because the ability to act randomly is not the same as having free will.
  3. Having voluntarist free will would mean being entirely capricious. To act free of causes would be to act without reason. Such a freedom would be gratuitous, since the only grounds for our choice would be the power to choose itself.
  4. The constraints upon our choices allow for the concept of character. We would have no moral character if we did not strongly feel that there were things we simply could not do, and others we felt we must.
  5. Praise and blame don’t depend on absolute freedom. To accept that one has done wrong and take responsibility for it is to resolve to try not to do it again and to put right anything that went wrong. We evidently do have the capacity to do this, and that is all that matters.
  6. It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction. It is only because we reflect on the things that could so easily have been done differently if conditions or our frame of mind had been slightly different that we learn to take responsibility and do better next time.
  7. Don’t reject the concept of ‘free will’: rethink it. The ‘compatibilist’ conception of free will acknowledges the causal necessity of the physical world, but it also recognises that, if no one ‘made me do it’, I acted freely.
  8. Achieve a free will worth having by aligning your first- and second-order desires. First-order desires include wanting cake or sex or to scratch yourself; second-order desires are your desires about these desires, such as wishing to resist the desire for cake. Free beings are ones who can act on their desires about their desires, and not just automatically on their desires.

Why it matters

Adopting the compatibilist view of free will encourages a more humane society

If we adopt a compatibilist notion of free will, we have to rid ourselves of delusions and illusions of ‘ultimate’ freedom and control. It can be disturbing to accept that there is a very real sense in which we could not do other than what we do, or be other than who we are. But if we can get over these discomforting thoughts, we can move to a place of humility and compassion that is both more humane and realistic than one rooted in naive beliefs in unfettered human freedom.

For example, studies have shown that the more people believe in free will, the harsher they judge not only criminals but their victims. When we fail to acknowledge the limitations of freedom, we become more punitive, less forgiving. Simply rejecting free will altogether would, of course, be one way to make us more forgiving. But it can also push us too far. Another famous set of studies suggested that when people are encouraged to believe that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat. The reasoning seems to be that, if we don’t have free will, no one can be blamed for their actions, so it no longer makes sense to feel bad about doing wrong.

We should be suspicious of all such studies, since many have failed to be replicated. Studies aside, however, it is logical that belief in voluntarist free will would entail attributing too much responsibility to people, and rejecting free will completely would mean the end of responsibility altogether. Only the compatibilist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. It tells us we shouldn’t just let people off the hook, but we should also become more aware of what has shaped people’s behaviour and therefore be more understanding of it. The same should also be true of how we view ourselves.

Compatibilism also allows for the undeniable fact that what we think changes how we act. Many assume that if all that we do is ultimately governed by cause and effect, then our actions are caused by brain processes that ‘bypass’ our thoughts and beliefs. But it cannot be as simple as that since, when we change what we believe, we change how we act. If I think that cake is poisoned, I won’t eat it. That is why it is important to think of our actions as being under a degree of control: what we think does change what we do.

One final lesson that is not sufficiently understood is that we should not be afraid of the fact that many of our decisions are made unconsciously. Artists, for example, often report that they have no idea where their ideas come from and that they feel more like conduits than creators. Yet art is one of the highest expressions of human freedom. The role of the conscious mind is to process and hone what arises from the unconscious. The result is creation, which is wholly that of the artist. Without conscious awareness of what we do, freedom is impossible, but conscious control is not something that we always need to be exercising.

Links & books

A much fuller account of the problem and my preferred solution can be found in my book Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will (2015). I discuss some of the issues of the book in this video talk for the Weekend University and in this episode of ABC’s podcast The Philosopher’s Zone.

This episode of the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg, offers a good discussion of the topic, with the philosophers Simon Blackburn, Helen Beebee and Galen Strawson.

The always relatable Philosophy Bites podcast, hosted by Psyche’s own Nigel Warburton, has episodes on free will featuring Thomas Pink, Neil Levy and Daniel Dennett.

A good short introduction is Thomas Pink’s Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (2004).

The book Four Views on Free Will (2007) by John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom and Manuel Vargas gives a thorough overview of the contemporary philosophical debate.

Meatier but still mostly accessible is the reference book The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (2nd ed, 2011) edited by Robert Kane.

Daniel Dennett’s book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984) remains for me the best contemporary monograph on the subject, better than his later book Freedom Evolves (2003).

An excellent collection of classic historical writings on the subject is Free Will (2nd ed, 2009) edited by Derk Pereboom.