Free will and determinism: are they compatible?

This page in brief ….

Neuroscientists tend to conclude that the processes in our brains follow known physical laws, and so our thinking is determined by physics – meaning we don’t have genuine free choice. But our experience is that we do indeed make choices and they seem to be free most of the time, meaning when we make a choice, we have the possibility of making a different choice.

How can we resolve this apparent dilemma?

Our conclusion shapes our views of human nature, ethics and even the existence of God, so it is important to try to determine what’s true.

I have been having an interesting discussion on this with Travis (see Can we be human without free will?). I thought I’d share with other readers where the discussion has taken me, and why I think it is important.

A quick summary of the free will “problem”

What is free will?

Free will is the ability to make choices without being forced or compelled to make a particular choice. Defining it is tricky, but most definitions include one or both of the following:

  1. We are the agents (we actually make the choice), we are capable of the action being chosen, we are not coerced and we have a reason or goal that leads to the choice (i.e. the action isn’t just random).
  2. We could have chosen otherwise and the choice isn’t totally determined by physics and chemistry, i.e. we were an “unmoved mover”.

Libertarian Free Will is defined by both these criteria. Some other forms of freewill only require criterion #1.

The evidence of neuroscience

Neuroscience studies the electrical and chemical processes in the brain, all of which appear to be fully described by laws. Thus most neuroscientists believe there is no place for any choice outside these laws, and every time we make a choice only one course is actually possible i.e. our choices are determined by physical laws and are not free in the libertarian sense.

This is in conflict with our perception that we actually have freewill.

Resolving the dilemma

There are three basic ways that people resolve this dilemma between our experience of free will and the determinism of neuroscience:

  • Determinism is a scientific fact, and our freedom to choose is illusory, though necessary for us to live as we do.
  • Freedom of choice is a real experience, and the determinism that can be inferred from current science is incomplete and incorrect.
  • Both freewill and determinism are compatible, provided the freewill we experience is defined as in criterion #1 above, and not #2.

Thus those who hold to the first two views (incompatibilists) accept the libertarian definition of freewill, whereas the third group (compatibilists) do not.

Which form of freewill do we experience?

This is the matter Travis and I have been discussing. I believe we experience libertarian freewill (criteria #1 and #2), Travis believes that our experience cannot discriminate between libertarian freewill and compatibilistic freewill (criterion #1 only). This may seem like a trivial matter, but I think we both believe it makes a big difference to how we understand our humanity.

So the key is whether we actually experience that our choices are not determined, and we experience that we are unmoved movers who could have chosen otherwise (these are the difference between the two views). Note: I am NOT saying this proves our choices are free, only that we experience them as truly (libertarian) free.

I believe there is plenty of evidence for this. I will outline the evidence first, then below I list all the references that I believe support this.

Summary of the evidence

The type of freewill are these studies talking about

Mostly these studies are defining “free will” as libertarian free will, and as incompatible with determinism.

What people naturally think

If you asked most people whether they had free will to make choices between several courses of action that are genuinely open to us, they would agree. Several experts say this is innate and intuitive.

Human society, law and ethics are based on people being free

Moral and legal responsibility requires that we act as agents that could have chosen differently. This is an indication that it is natural for us to believe that we are capable of libertarian choice.

Determinists believe we should develop new and appropriate law codes, but it has been shown many times that believing in determinism tends to lead to less socially acceptable behaviour.

Experts say we can’t live without the illusion

Psychologists seem to be quite sure that human beings cannot function effectively without believing in libertarian freewill. Susan Blackmore believes we can train ourselves to accept determinism, but this illustrates that our natural condition is to believe we experience freewill.

It looks like evolution has made us to think that way

There seems to be a growing consensus that believing we experience freewill is evolutionarily advantageous. This again illustrates that it is natural to believe that we experience freewill (even if we actually don’t have libertarian freewill).

Expert studies confirm that people feel they have libertarian freewill

The above points illustrate how it is natural for people to believe we all experience the ability to choose among real options. But the most important evidence is the conclusions from direct studies. There are many of these, and with one possible exception, every one I have found is quite clear that human beings believe we experience libertarian freewill and not a “lesser” form of will such as compatibilism.

This quote from psychologists Feldman and Chandrashekar is typical

People intuitively perceive the world as allowing for human indeterminism (or incompatibilist free will), and they do so with certainty.

So people say they don’t experience determinism and they do experience the ability to choose between options. This is libertarian free will that they are describing and experiencing.


Thus people generally believe what they experience is described in criterion #2, and hence they believe we experience libertarian freewill. This belief is necessary, or highly beneficial for our psychology and our society. Determinism may be true but it isn’t what people feel they experience.

This doesn’t mean that we do indeed experience libertarian freewill, but it does indicate that this is our almost universal human experience.

I would go on to argue that this experience should be trusted more than the deterministic conclusions of neuroscientists, because their conclusions are based on naturalistic assumptions – i.e. because they can’t find a place for freewill within their naturalistic science, then it cannot exist. That is not a scientific view, but a metaphysical one, with no strong basis. As Alwin Scott said many years ago: “Although dualism cannot be disproved, the role of science is to proceed on the assumption that it is wrong and see how much progress can be made.”

I don’t accept that assumption, and choose to accept the evidence of our senses. But that’s another story.


The type of freewill are these studies talking about

“Free will can be the reason why someone is not sent to jail during a trial upon appealing to insanity: the subject was not “free” when they committed the crime, not because someone was pointing a gun to their head, but because a psychiatric illness prevented them from controlling their actions.”

“Free will can be defined by three conditions (Walter, 2001). The first one is the “ability to do otherwise.” This is an intuitive concept: to be free, one has to have at least two alternatives or courses of action between which to choose. If one has an involuntary spasm of the mouth, for example, one is not in the position to choose whether to twist one’s mouth or not. The second condition is the “control over one’s choices.” The person who acts must be the same who decides what to do. To be granted free will, one must be the author of one’s choices, without the interference of people and of mechanisms outside of one’s reach. This is what we call agency, that is, being and feeling like the “owner” of one’s decisions and actions. The third condition is the “responsiveness to reasons”: a decision can’t be free if it is the effect of a random choice, but it must be rationally motivated. If I roll a dice to decide whom to marry, my choice cannot be said to be free, even though I will freely choose to say “I do”. On the contrary, if I choose to marry a specific person for their ideas and my deep love for them, then my decision will be free.”

“Thus defined, free will is a kind of freedom that we are willing to attribute to all human beings as a default condition.”

Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It

What people naturally think

“Intellectual concepts of free will can vary enormously, but there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in the concept starting at a young age. When children age 3 to 5 see a ball rolling into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, they insist that she could have done something else.”

“That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up, as experimental philosophers have discovered by querying adults in different cultures, including Hong Kong, India, Colombia and the United States. Whatever their cultural differences, people tend to reject the notion that they live in a deterministic world without free will.”

Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice

“Our choices feel free, don’t they? I decided to be a psychologist because I felt called or inspired to understand what makes people tick. That was my choice, wasn’t it?”

Do We Have Free Will?

“IT SEEMS OBVIOUS to me that I have free will. When I have just made a decision, say, to go to a concert, I feel that I could have chosen to do something else….. Our intuitions about free will …… challenge [the] nihilistic view.”

Is Free Will an Illusion?

Human society, law and ethics are based on people being free

“Along with the illusion of control, our sense of agency brings the burdens of individual responsibility. Though this may sometimes weigh heavily on us personally, for society as a whole it is hugely beneficial. Our entire morality and judicial system is dependent on everyone accepting that they are agents of their own misdeeds, and those who don’t acknowledge this are—by legal definition—insane. We may not consciously control our own actions, but the cognitive mechanisms that create the illusion that we do keep society functioning”

Exploring Consciousness (R Carter, 2002, University of California Press, Berkeley).

“In the lab, using deterministic arguments to undermine people’s belief in free will has led to a number of negative outcomes including increased cheating and aggression. It has also been linked to a reduction in helping behaviours and lowered feelings of gratitude. … some studies have shown that people who believe in free will are more likely to have positive life outcomes – such as happiness, academic success and better work performance ….. this association is still debated.”

The psychology of believing in free will

“In a follow-up experiment …. people were more likely to cheat after being exposed beforehand to arguments against free will.”

Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice

Experts say we can’t live without belief in free will

“Lloyd (2012) …. shows that the psychology of human decision-making makes the illusion of free will necessary”

Five Arguments For Free Will

“Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief”

Cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, Society of Mind, p307

“I have argued at length for Illusionism on free will, i.e. the idea that illusion (particularly the belief in robust libertarian free will) is prevalent, and probably positive; arguably even a morally necessary illusion.”

Saul Smilansky, comment of 11/18/2012 at 09:01 pm

“We can’t give up our conviction of our own freedom, even though there’s no ground for it.”

Philosopher John Searle

It looks like evolution has made us to think that way

“the existence of free will is so widely accepted and has strong survival value”

The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Anthony R. Cashmore

“even our most seemingly ironclad beliefs about our own agency and conscious experience can be dead wrong …. The idea of free will may have arisen because it is a useful thing to have, giving people a feeling of control over their lives”

Free will could all be an illusion, scientists suggest after study shows choice may just be brain tricking itself

Expert studies confirm that people feel they have libertarian freewill

“In the case of free will, research suggests that people in a diverse range of cultures reject determinism”

Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will

“In the majority of the studies ….. most of the participants (over 90%) typically indicated the indeterminist universe as more likely representative of reality….. People intuitively perceive the world as allowing for human indeterminism (or incompatibilist free will), and they do so with certainty.”

Laypersons’ Beliefs and Intuitions About Free Will and Determinism

[We have] “a constant personal awareness of making decisions that have the appearance of being driven by free will”

The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Anthony R. Cashmore

“…. no cognitively undamaged human being can help acting like, and at some level really feeling, that he or she is free.There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people ‘psychopaths’”

Edward Slingerland, Neuroscience, Theory of Mind, and the Status of Human-Level Truth, in Neuroscience and Religion, VP Gay (Ed)

“many philosophers cite a seven-year-old paper of Eddy Nahmias et al. that seems to show …. that many people feel that even in a deterministic universe, people still say that they choose actions of their own free will and are morally responsible for those actions. …. The Nahmias paper is ubiquitously cited as evidence that the average person is a compatibilist.”

[But] “…. there is a spate of literature since 2006 that points to opposite conclusions: a majority of people think that a.) the universe is not deterministic”

Does the average person believe in determinism, free will, and moral responsibility?

“When surveyed, Americans say they disagree with such descriptions of the universe. From inquiries in other countries, researchers have found that Chinese, Colombians and Indians share this opinion: individual choice is not determined. Why do humans hold this view? One promising explanation is that we presume that we can generally sense all the influences on our decision making—and because we cannot detect deterministic influences, we discount them.”

Is Free Will an Illusion?

“Ultimately, when people feel they have little control over their actions and outcomes in life, they feel more distant from their true, authentic selves. They are less in touch with who they are, and do not believe their actions reflect their core beliefs and values. We believe this is because belief in free will is linked to feelings of agency—the sense that we are the authors of our actions and are actively engaged with the world. As you can imagine, this sense of agency is an important part of a person’s identity.”

What happens if we do (or do not) believe in free will?

“85% of the Chinese teenagers expressed a belief in free will, and that this was positively correlated with happiness. Free will describes the ability to make independent choices, where the outcome of the choice is not influenced by past events.”

Where belief in free will is linked to happiness

“the core of people’s concept of free will is a choice that fulfills one’s desires and is free from internal or external constraints. No evidence was found for metaphysical assumptions about dualism or indeterminism.”

From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will. This is the only reference I found that suggested that our experience might be less than libertarian free will, but I could only read the synopsis, so can’t judge the merits of the evidence.

Photo Credit: moonux via Compfight cc.


  1. I withdrew from the earlier thread, on your request. I’ll rejoin with this thread.

    Most online discussions of free will are absurd.

    Let me start with a diversion. I often point out that Boyle’s law is false, and well known to be false. It is an idealization, and a very useful one. But, as with most idealizations, it isn’t exactly true.

    Most scientific laws are idealizations. I can recommend “How the laws of physics lie” (by Nancy Cartwright, a philosopher of physics). It argues that scientific laws are idealizations, and that physics works so well because of that.

    Back to free will.

    LFW (libertarian free will) is an idealization, and that’s the reason for my diversion. For that matter, compatibilist free will is also an idealization. Our biological nature is complex, and is easier to describe with idealizations. What makes the discussion of free will absurd, is that some people absolutely insist on the literal truth of these idealizations.

    Determinism is a scientific fact …

    In a strictly deteriministic world, there would not be any facts. In a strictly deterministic world, if people made assertions of fact that would be because the world was determined in such a way that they made those assertions. There could be no factual basis for believing that those assertions were factual.

    Freedom of choice is a real experience, and the determinism that can be inferred from current science is incomplete and incorrect.

    This seems right. However, the degree of freedom of choice is less than LFW proponents claim. Always remember that LFW is an idealization, not a description.

    Both freewill and determinism are compatible, provided …

    Why do have to ruin it with that “provided …” part?

    Compatibilism is an account of what we mean by “free will”. It is an account that is compatible with determinism, but it does not assert determinism. If the world were strictly deterministic, then there would be no free will. But there would also be no science, no facts, no life as we know it.

    So the key is whether we actually experience that our choices are not determined …

    No. The key is that our choices are determined — by us. They wouldn’t be our choices if we were not determining them (choosing them).

    Human society, law and ethics are based on people being free

    Science, too, is based on people being free. That’s why it is absurd to say that science denies freedom. To deny freedom is to deny the possibility of science.

    Determinists believe we should develop new and appropriate law codes, …

    Yes, they do. And it always seems absurd. Roughly speaking, determinists assert that because we don’t have free will, we should use the free will that we don’t have to change our law codes.

    And somehow the people who assert this do not see the absurdity.

  2. Eric,
    I’ve only had a chance to skim the reference material here, but it seems that most of these aren’t relevant to the compatibilism question because they only deal with a strictly dichotomous framing. It looks like perhaps the Feldman and Chandrashekar study is most relevant to dissecting that further, but I think that it still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It indicates that people are more likely to perceive reality as indeterministic than as having an uncertain causal foundation (and both are perceived as more likely than determinism), and to similarly judge the libertarian universe as being most relevant for several related factors. I previously agreed that the average layperson is more likely to espouse LFW when asked to make an assessment. But there are two important aspects of our discussion that these sources do not address:
    1. The fact that people are more likely to intuit LFW versus an uncertain causal explanation is not justification for that assessment. This does not explain how our experience of the world actually supports the reality of that intuition. My proposal at the end of the previous thread was that there is nothing about our subjective experience which justifies us making that distinction, and I don’t see anything here which should cause me to question that.
    2. Most of my argumentation was pragmatic, suggesting that the best definition of free will is the one that operates only at the level which matters to the majority of contexts to which the term applies – which I suggest does not go beyond the subjective experience of choice. In these studies, however, participants are necessarily operating in a context that incorporates consideration of the underlying causal explanations. The ‘uncertain’ universe is an interesting data point, but it is not the same as a context that lacks consideration for the low-level causal explanation.

  3. Sorry, one more comment on your closing sentence:

    This is the only reference I found that suggested that our experience might be less than libertarian free will, but I could only read the synopsis, so can’t judge the merits of the evidence.

    References which present a dichotomous categorization of free will as either indeterminite or determined are not especially relevant to our particular discussion. That last reference is important because it asks people to define free will on their own terms, and then these are later coded and categorized accordingly. It’s greatest weakness is that the study population is most likely less religious than the general population. But both Monroe and Malle are fairly significant researchers in this domain, and that is not the only relevant paper to suggest that the lay conception of free will is not necessarily libertarian.

    The full content of the last reference is available here:
    From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will
    Also worth looking at their subsequent 2014 paper:
    Free Will Without Metaphysics
    And another paper that employed a similar approach:
    Free will in everyday life: Autobiographical accounts of free and unfree actions
    And a study which indicates that “bypassing” is a key factor behind participants aligning with incompatibilism in previous studies:
    Explaining away incompatibilist intuitions

  4. Hi Neil,

    “I withdrew from the earlier thread, on your request.”

    I’m sorry you thought that, for it wasn’t my intention. What I said was “a discussion requires each person to understand the other person’s viewpoint clearly enough to respond to it. And as I said previously, I am struggling to understand your viewpoint on this matter. …… And that makes it hard to respond.”

    So to clarify, you are welcome to post in any place, but I may not reply at any length if I don’t feel I can understand what you are saying, or I don’t have anything much to say.

    That, unfortunately is the case here.

    1. Some of what you say doesn’t seem to me to have any reality. Yes, of course all our knowledge is approximate and not totally certain. But we manage to live out our days, get things done, make things, explore ideas, etc, despite the uncertainties. So I don’t think any of the uncertainties and “idealisations” you mention should prevent us answering the question I have been asking.

    2. You don’t offer much evidence for the assertions.

    3. I think it all becomes an exercise in using words in ways that obscure meanings and avoid some of the difficulties in the issues we are discussing. Which is fine if you want to approach them that way, but I don’t find it useful, and it certainly doesn’t leave much to discuss.

    I’m sorry to dismiss what you write, but that’s how I see it.

  5. G’day Travis,

    Thanks for reading and for the references. But I’m doubtful that we can go much further, for I feel your references don’t establish what you (and they) claim, because I think they are using inappropriate criteria. I’ll outline what I think in response to the papers you reference, but I have to say that I haven’t read every word, so may have missed something.

    I think the first paper gets it quite wrong. It finds that the participants defined free will in three terms: “making a choice, following one’s desires, or being free of constraints”. These seem to me to quite clearly be in the area of incompatibilist choice, especially being free of constraints.

    In the second study, they found participants gave the following explanations: “Neural impulses are caused… (due to our free will”), Choice, and Neural impulses do not explain.” Again, these answers seem to me to be saying that determinism isn’t true in their view, because it takes a choice to start the neural response – I’d say the participants are thinking of something like an unmoved mover.

    It seems that the authors were looking for something far more explictly dualistic: “metaphysical assumptions about dualism or indeterminism”. But while I believe there is evidence that many people do implicitly have some dualistic beliefs, that wasn’t part of the definition which I used, and I think is not at all a worthwhile criterion. So I think they have applied their own assumptions about the meanings of words like “choice” and “constraints”.

    The second study falls into the same trap of thinking that if people don’t have well defined metaphysical concepts that explain freewill, then they can be seen as compatibilists. e.g “people have, not a metaphysical, but a psychological concept of free will: they assume that “free actions” are based on choices that fulfill one’s desires and are relatively free from internal and external constraints. Moreover, we argue that these components—choice, desires, and constraints—lie at the heart of people’s moral judgments. Once these components are accounted for, the abstract concept of free will contributes very little to people’s moral judgments.” I say again, normal people use “choice” and “constraints” in ways that are incompatibilist, even if they don’t have a clear metaphysic. The study’s criteria are inappropriate.

    I thought the third paper was the weakest, very poor method that I thought was quite unlikely to get any depth of understanding, so I’ll say no more.

    Conversely, I thought the fourth paper showed the most promise because it seemed like it defined the methodological problems in more detail (unfortunately, it was also the longest). But I couldn’t get much out of it except the fact that determinism doesn’t necessarily involve bypassing, which none of us have mentioned in this discussion. So what seemed like it might be useful ended up adding very little (as far as I could see).

    So I think the argument I put here, based on many more than these 4 papers, still stands, and I won’t bore you with repeating it. But thanks for the references, you did well to find them (I guess Google doesn’t search the Wayback machine!).

  6. Yes, of course all our knowledge is approximate and not totally certain.

    Then I wonder what’s the point of the whole discussion.

    Approximate determinism isn’t any kind of determinism at all. Approximate determinism does not contradict even LFW.

  7. Eric,
    I do not wish to get into a pissing contest about how to properly interpret the publications and comparing how many citations we can each find. I was simply trying to provide some additional data points. Regardless, I think you’re correct that we will not be making any more progress. I simply cannot understand how one can rely on subjective experience to distinguish between hidden causes and LFW, and you simply cannot understand how one would fail to clearly identify LFW in our subjective experience. These barriers seem to be impenetrable for each of us. Thanks for the discussion. I hope it has helped both of us and any readers to think more clearly about this domain.

  8. Hi Neil,

    “Then I wonder what’s the point of the whole discussion.

    Approximate determinism isn’t any kind of determinism at all. Approximate determinism does not contradict even LFW.”

    It isn’t determinism that’s approximate, but our knowledge of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say anything sensible about it.

    Take gravity as an example. Newton formulated several laws of gravitation. Einstein found they were just approximations. But Newton’s laws were still sufficient to predict planetary motion and calculate the trajectory of cannon shells.

    The words we are reading on screen are composed of dots, but they look continuous and we can still read them. The world around us looks solid but it is really made of atoms, and they are made of quarks. But we can still sit on a seat without falling through.

    So if you choose to think that we can’t sensibly discuss or define free will and determinism, I can respect that. But I think it is unnecessary and in fact not helpful. And us each having such different views of reality make it difficult, probably pointless, to discuss these issues.

    I think.

  9. Hi Travis,

    1. I appreciate the references and found them interesting and helpful. But I think they fall into the same category of compatibilists trying to put two things together that don’t easily go (in my mind can’t logically go).

    2. You say: “I simply cannot understand how one can rely on subjective experience to distinguish between hidden causes and LFW, and you simply cannot understand how one would fail to clearly identify LFW in our subjective experience.” But I think that is still a misunderstanding of what I am saying and where we disagree.

    2.1 I’m not arguing about relying on subjective experience, but rather describing what most people think they experience. I DON’T think we can rely on subjective experience alone, I think we need to consider both levels – I thought it was you who wanted to rely on subjective experience to define free will.

    2.2 Again, I’m not suggesting that some people (e.g. you) can’t say you don’t identify LFW in our experience. What I am saying is that MOST people see their experience as LFW. And I further think that it takes some philosophical sophistication, and some motivation to resolve an apparent inconsistency, to get to the point you are at.

    3. And yes, our differences do seem to be impenetrable. But I have gained a lot from the discussion. I understand your view better. I have read a lot more papers on a subject that interests me. And I have explored and developed my own ideas too. So I appreciate all that.


  10. We are all subject to confirmation bias and guilty of engaging in motivated reasoning, and – except for those rare cases where somebody’s mind is changed – we all tend to think that the other person is doing it more than us.

  11. Yes, I’m sure you are right. I can see it in myself (of course as a christian I have a motivation to look for an explanation that fits with my existing beliefs, and that isn’t unusual or all bad, as keeping one’s beliefs coherent is logical) and it seems to me to be true of compatibilists too (though I have tried not to accuse you personally of it).

    I think I have little problem accepting the genuineness of an atheistic viewpoint, because I can see there are explanations and arguments both ways (not all christians think that way, nor do all atheists think the same thing about christians). But it is true that I think the discussions of free will, consciousness and ethics are more prone to this problem.

    Thanks again for the discussion. I have appreciated, as always, your willingness to discuss courteously and logically. If I have said anything that was unfair, I apologise. I am just trying to express how I’m thinking, not insult you in any way.

Comments are closed.