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Do we have free will? A review of the leading theories shows that the question is answerable after all.

We all believe or at least are inclined to believe that every event has a cause. This is the view known as "causal determinism." Most would think it nonsense to say that an event transpired without a cause. We would be incredulous if someone seriously thought, for example, that her clock stopped working for no reason whatsoever. Even if no one could determine the precise cause or causes, we still would not accept the idea that the clock's stopping had no cause. Whether we're talking about clocks, computers, solar flares, the mating habits of geese, or the common cold, we firmly believe that each has a cause.

Further, we all believe that our acts - what we do, say, and choose also have causes, just as everything else must have causes, for our acts are events, too. We assume that our acts are the result of our heredity, our previous experiences, the peculiarities of our personality, the circumstances preceding the acts, or something. Indeed, we believe that our acts must have causes otherwise they would simply happen by chance.

On the other hand, most people believe that we have free will - that we can sometimes make a choice and that it is up to us what we shall choose. And most believe that if we act freely, we can be held responsible for what we do.

But if everything, including every act, has a cause, how is it possible for persons to have free will? Let's say that you perform an act - you press your finger against a button that detonates a bomb. Since everything has a cause, this movement of your finger must have a cause - perhaps the contracting of your muscles accompanied by certain electrical impulses in your hand and brain. According to causal determinism, this something cause or causes, in turn must have been due to other causes (like certain brain states), and these causes must have been due to still others, and so on. Indeed, there must have been a whole succession of causes extending indefinitely into the past - stretching back before you were even born. Therefore, your simple act of pressing the button must have been the result of causes over which you had no control whatsoever.

We may believe we are free, but how can this be? How can we consistently believe both that we are determined and that we have free will? Two of our most basic beliefs seem to be inconsistent. Welcome to what philosophers call "the problem of free will and determinism."

A lot is riding on the responses we gave to this problem. Among the important things at stake here is the idea of moral responsibility. If we really are not free in any meaningful way, we cannot reasonably be held responsible for what we do. We cannot reasonably be blamed (or praised) for any act. After all, we would have no control over our acts - they would be the end result of causal chains that stretch back into the indefinite past. We would have no say in this process; it would simply happen to us. We therefore could not be reasonably held responsible for our actions and choices - no more than we could be held responsible for some genetic disease that befell us.

To see variations on this theme, we need only pick up a newspaper. There we can read about trial lawyers pleading the devil made-me-do-it defense - that a client is not responsible for his illegal act because he was born with bad genes, or he grew up in a violent community (and thus has "urban survival syndrome"), or he suffered from "roid rage" (severe mood swings associated with steroid use), or he was the victim of long-term abuse.

The famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) consistently wielded the "determinism defense" with great skill and passion. In the 1920s he defended two college students. Leopold and Loeb, who murdered and dismembered a child. He admitted that the boys did indeed commit the heinous act but that they - like all of us - never had any real control over their lives. They were doomed - determined - by forces that were at work before the boys even conceived of their crime.

If Darrow is right, we would have to admit that moral responsibility is an illusion. We might find ourselves agreeing with Casy, the preacher in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, who awoke one night and said, "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things people do is nice, and some ain't so nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say."

We submit, however, that if this stalemate between two of our most cherished beliefs is unbearable, it is also unnecessary. Over the centuries, philosophers have wrestled mightily with the problem of free will and - contrary to the impression you may have received in Philosophy 101 - they have made progress, especially of late. They have put forth several theories regarding the possibility of free action and, fortunately, we now know that some of them are better than others. Some of them are full of holes - and some hold out the promise of finally answering the riddle. Let's review the main contenders and see which is the most plausible.


Those who believe that we have no free will - that there are no free actions - are known as "hard determinists." They assert that, because everything has a cause, no one acts freely.

Hard determinists have traditionally been materialists. In fact, Leucippus (c. 500 B.C.E.), the first person to propose an atomic theory of matter, is reputed to have said, "Nothing occurs by chance, but all is from necessity." According to a traditional materialist view, the universe is a great, intricate mechanism ticking and turning ceaselessly in fixed ways. In this grand machine there are component mechanisms known as human beings. They too are entirely physical and fully subject to natural laws. These mechanisms have complex brains producing various brain states. Every brain state follows necessarily from preceding brain states so that every thought and action is entirely necessitated, as the motions of any mechanism must be. Thus the causes of the human mechanism's choices and actions are outside its control. Freedom for human matter-in-motion is an illusion. Because we are natural objects, we are bound by the same laws that govern everything else in the natural world. We can no more change the future than we can change the past.

But the view that nothing we do is up to us runs counter to some of our most deeply held beliefs. Specifically it conflicts with the belief that people sometimes deserve our respect, admiration, gratitude, disdain, resentment, enmity, etc. If all of our actions were caused by forces beyond our control, no one would merit such attitudes. In a deterministic world, there is no place for moral sentiments. Suppose, for example, that an old friend of yours sends you a birthday present. You are naturally inclined to feel gratitude toward her. But suppose you later find out that someone had threatened to beat her up if she didn't send you a present. Your feeling of gratitude would then be inappropriate because your friend didn't act of her own free will.

We are justified in believing something only if it doesn't conflict with other things we have good reason to believe. Our belief that every event has a cause conflicts with our belief that humans have free will. So until we eliminate the conflict by explaining how one of these beliefs is possible (or why it's impossible), we are not justified in believing either.

Let's consider the hard determinist's argument. It's a serious challenge to the idea that people have free will. The argument is this:

1. Every event has a cause (the doctrine of causal determinism).

2. If every event has a cause, there are no free actions.

3. Therefore, there are no free actions.

This is a valid argument; its conclusion follows logically from the premises. It may not be a sound argument, however, for its premises may not be true. Thus to decide whether we should accept the conclusion, we have to determine whether we are justified in believing the premises.

Let's start with premise 1. What reasons are there for believing that every event has a cause? Essentially, the main reasons come down to: (1) Science shows that causal determinism is true, and (2) Reflective common sense shows that causal determinism is true. Most people need very little prodding to grasp the import of the first reason. They're reminded every day that science continues to uncover the underlying causes of countless physical phenomena. It has shown that stars, comets, engines, and cells behave according to unchanging laws of nature. Events that were once mysterious have been revealed to have identifiable causes.

Despite all this, science does not show that every event has a cause. In fact, modern physics now explicitly rejects that belief. In the realm of subatomic particles, some events are believed to be uncaused. The decay of a radioactive atom, for example, is considered a totally random event. There is no explanation as to why a radioactive atom decays at one time rather than another, and physicists believe that no such explanation will ever be forthcoming. The behavior of subatomic particles is not governed by deterministic laws - it is governed by statistical laws. So there is no way to predict with certainty what a subatomic particle will do.

A hard determinist might try to defend causal determinism by claiming that, although it doesn't hold on the micro level of subatomic particles, it does hold on the macro level of everyday objects, which is the only level that matters for us. What is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. To claim otherwise is to commit the fallacy of composition. So even if the behavior of subatomic particles is indeterminate, it doesn't follow that our behavior is indeterminate.

Such a defense of causal determinism misses the mark, however, for uncaused events on the micro level can indeed have profound effects on the macro level. Martin Gardner provides a classic thought experiment in which the detonation of a hydrogen bomb (dropped from an airplane) is triggered by the click of a Geiger counter, which is the result of a random quantum event. Thus we have a perfect example of indeterminism in the micro world affecting events in the macro world. (Since the clicking of the Geiger counter was indeterminate, the dropping of the hydrogen bomb was also indeterminate.)

But what of common sense? We all believe or are inclined to believe that causal determinism is true. This pervasive belief is a matter of common sense. But, of course, the fact that everyone has this belief doesn't make it true. Even common sense beliefs can be false.

Some, like Immanuel Kant, have claimed that we cannot understand the world unless we assume that every event has a cause. But even if we can only make sense of the world on the assumption that every event has a cause, it doesn't follow that every event has a cause. For the world may be incomprehensible. What we need to understand the world may not be present in it. What's more, modern physics has shown that we can understand the world without assuming that every event has a cause. Quantum mechanics (the branch of physics that deals with subatomic particles) gives us an unprecedented understanding of the physical world, and yet it does not assume that every event has a cause. So causal determinism is not vindicated by either science or reflective common sense.


The view that some events are uncaused is known as causal "indeterminism." Some have thought that this doctrine can be used to provide a plausible account of free will. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.), another atomist, realized that, if the motion of atoms was completely determinate, there would be no free will. To explain how free will is possible, he speculated that atoms randomly "swerve" as they move through space.

William James (1842-1910) was as concerned about the ethical implications of determinism as was Epicurus. He realized that, in a world governed by necessity, there could be no morality. So he argued that some things happen by chance. If the world is not completely determined, each of us has many possible futures. Which of those futures becomes actual will depend on the choices we make. But a free choice - a choice we make by chance - would fit just as well with what has gone before as a determined choice. So James's indeterminism is the doctrine that free actions are uncaused.

This theory is superior to hard determinism in that it fits better with our scientific and commonsense beliefs. It is consistent with the findings of modern physics as well as the person in the street. But even though indeterminism does less damage to our belief system than hard determinism, it isn't an adequate theory of free will because it doesn't explain how moral responsibility is possible. You are responsible for an action only if you did it. But if an action is uncaused, you didn't do it. So it's hard to see how indeterminism can assign responsibility.

Actions, as opposed to reflexes, are intentional. Your leg's going up after the doctor hits your knee with a mallet is a reflex - not an action - because you didn't intend it to happen. Similarly, your random, uncaused arm movements are not actions because you did not intend them to happen. But if they are not actions, they are not free actions either. So indeterminism does not provide a satisfactory account of free action.


If causal determinism is true - if every event has a cause then we cannot act freely because everything we do is caused by forces beyond our control. But if causal indeterminism is true - if some events are uncaused - then again we cannot act freely because nothing we do is up to us. The conclusion that we cannot act freely thus appears inescapable. But compatibilists claim that we can avoid being impaled on the horns of this dilemma by rejecting the first horn. In their view, causal determinism does not rule out freedom. Even if every event has a cause, we can still be free. So compatibilists reject the second premise of the hard determinists' argument - that if every event has a cause, no one acts freely. But they accept the first premise - that every event has a cause. So, in William James's terminology, they have come to be known as "soft determinists."

The first person to articulate a compatibilist position was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He rejected as unintelligible the indeterminist notion that free actions are uncaused. Nothing, he says, "taketh a beginning from itself." Free actions, like all other events, must have a cause. Specifically, they must be caused by the will. But being caused by the will is not enough to make an action free because, in some situations, no other actions are possible. If you couldn't do otherwise, your action isn't free.

Hobbes offers a "conditional analysis" of what it is to be able to do otherwise. He writes: ". . . he is free to do a thing, that may do it if he have the will to do it, and may forbear if he have the will to forbear."(1) In Hobbes's view, to be able to do otherwise is to be such that if you had chosen to do otherwise, you would have done otherwise.

Traditional compatibilism, then, is the doctrine that free actions are (1) caused by one's will and (2) not externally constrained. An action is not externally constrained if the person performing the action could have done otherwise. And she could have done otherwise if she was such that, if she had chosen otherwise, she would have done otherwise.

Compatibilists believe that what distinguishes free actions from unfree ones is the nature of their causes. Free actions have internal causes whereas unfree actions have external causes. The only actions that we can be held responsible for are those that have been caused by our will. If the immediate cause of an action is something external to us, it is not our doing.

Traditional compatibilism is superior to indeterminism because it not only reconciles the opposing ideas of causal determinism and free will, but it also provides a plausible account of moral responsibility. You are responsible for an action as long as it was caused by your will.

To determine whether traditional compatibilism solves the problem of free will, we'll have to put it to the test. Do all and only free actions meet the conditions specified? Many think not. Consider this example from Richard Taylor:

Let us suppose that my body is moving in various ways, that these motions are not externally constrained or impeded, and that they are all exactly in accordance with my own desires, choices, or acts of will and what not. . . . We suppose further, accordingly, that while my behavior is entirely in accordance with my own volitions, and thus "free" in terms of the conception of freedom we are examining, my volitions themselves are caused. To make this graphic, we can suppose that an ingenious physiologist can induce in me any volition he pleases, simply by pushing various buttons on an instrument to which, let us suppose, I am attached by numerous wires. All the volitions I have in that situation are, accordingly, precisely the ones he gives me. By pushing one button, he evokes in me the volition to raise my hand; and my hand, being unimpeded, rises in response to that volition. By pushing another, he induces the volition in me to kick, and my foot, being unimpeded, kicks in response to that volition. We can even suppose that the physiologist puts a rifle in my hands, aims at some passer-by, and then, by pushing the proper button, evokes in me the volition to squeeze my finger against the trigger, whereupon the passer-by falls dead of a bullet wound.(2)

Taylor envisions a situation in which both of the conditions of traditional compatibilism are met: his actions are caused by his will and they are not externally constrained. If he had chosen to do otherwise, he would have done otherwise. But Taylor can't choose to do otherwise because his choices are being manipulated by an ingenious physiologist. So the conditional analysis of "could do otherwise" must be mistaken. Our actions can fail to be free even when the conditional is true.

We don't have to appeal to science fiction to see the inadequacy of traditional compatibilism's analysis of free action. Consider the case of drug addicts. It is possible to become addicted to crack cocaine after using it only a few times. After one is addicted, one has an irresistible desire to use it. Nevertheless, a crack addict's use of crack meets the conditions for a free action laid down by traditional compatibilism: it is caused by the addict's own will, and it is not externally constrained. So traditional compatibilism would have us believe that a crack addict's use of crack is a free action. But that's implausible. Crack addicts can't help themselves. They are slaves to their drug habit. Because the actions of addicts are not free, traditional compatibilism can't be correct.

Harry Frankfurt formulated another kind of compatibilism that's superior to this traditional form. Each of us, Frankfurt says, wants to do many things, and often these wants conflict. When we say that you did what you wanted to do, we may simply mean that you acted on one of your wants. But we may also mean that you acted on the want you wanted to act on. Only if your action is of the second sort, Frankfurt says, is it free.(3)

All of us have desires for various objects and states of affairs. We desire things like food, clothing, and shelter as well as conditions like being healthy, being well-informed, and being well paid. Desires that are directed on objects or states of affairs are called "first-order desires."

Self-conscious beings like ourselves cannot only be aware of the first-order desires we have, but we can have desires about those desires. A smoker, for example, can have the desire not to desire to smoke. That is, he can desire not to be the sort of person who has a desire for cigarettes. Desires that are directed on first-order desires are called "second-order desires." Second-order desires that we want to act on Frankfurt calls "second-order volitions." To act freely, according to Frankfurt, is to act on a second-order volition. If you do not formulate second-order volitions, or if you do not act on the ones you do form, your actions are not free - you are a slave to your first-order desires.

Unlike traditional compatibilism, Frankfurt's "hierarchical compatibilism" can explain why those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorders do not act freely even though their actions are caused internally and are not externally constrained. If a kleptomaniac doesn't want to act on his desire to steal but steals anyway, he does not act freely.

Hierarchical compatibilism can also explain why animals are not usually considered to have free will. Animals, especially mammals, may well be conscious, but they do not seem to be self-conscious, for they do not seem to be able to formulate second-order desires. Cows, for example, do not seem capable of having a desire not to desire to eat so much. In other words, animals are wantons. They are motivated solely by first-order desires.

In so far as hierarchical compatibilism is a compatibilist theory, it is committed to the view that persons can be held responsible for their actions even though they are determined. But what if a person has no control over their second-order desires? Can a person act freely if their second-order volitions are not up to them? Actually, no. What if a person's second-order desires have been induced in him by, say, a hypnotist or a mad physiologist? His second-order desires would not be his - so his actions would not be free.

Thus there must be more to acting freely than just acting on the second-order volitions you decisively identify with. Your second-order volitions must be your own.


The problem of free will and determinism arises because free will appears to be incompatible with causal determinism. If every event has a cause, it seems that nothing we do is up to us. Compatibilists try to solve this problem by arguing that the seeming incompatibility is not real. Actions that are causally determined can nonetheless be free. But as we have seen, neither traditional nor hierarchical compatibilism provides an adequate account of free action. This suggests that free will and causal determinism may be incompatible after all (the view known as "incompatibilism").(4)

Given this incompatibility, do we have any reason to believe that the free-will side of the equation is any stronger than the causal determinism side proved to be?

Yes, we do. We all frequently have the impression that we can freely choose and that the choices we make are up to us. In countless situations, we have the impression that there are alternatives open to us and that nothing prevents us from choosing any one of them - or not choosing. In short, we continually have the experience that we are acting freely.

Because our experience suggests that our actions are sometimes free, we have good reason to believe that they sometimes are free. Our experience of freedom is the evidence that supports our claim of free action. And as long as we have no good reason to doubt what this experience suggests, we have good reason to believe that we do indeed have free will.

Indeed, whatever we explicitly say about the issue of free will, we all implicitly assume that we have free will. For we all deliberate; we all occasionally decide which of several actions to perform. We can deliberate about doing something only if we believe that it is in our power to do it or not to do it. If you believe that the concert you wanted to go to is now over, then you cannot now deliberate about whether or not to attend the concert. Since you know that there is now no way for you to attend the concert (you have no choice about it), you cannot seriously engage in deciding whether to attend. You might pretend to decide, but genuine deliberation is out of the question. Therefore, when we deliberate, we must believe that we can perform free action. The belief that some actions are free is thus a belief of reflective common sense. It is thus a reasonable belief, one that we are entitled to accept unless we have good reason to doubt it.

Some have objected to this line of argument on the grounds that we can be deceived about our freedom. Maybe our experience or belief is entirely misleading. Maybe we feel free, as Baruch Spinoza suggested, because we are ignorant of all the ways that we are completely determined. But from the fact that we can be mistaken it doesn't follow that we are mistaken. As Descartes showed, it's possible that we're dreaming right now. But this doesn't mean that we are dreaming. We are justified in believing what our experience reveals to us until it is shown that our experience is illusory. Therefore we are justified in believing that sometimes we do act freely until someone gives us good reason to believe otherwise. And thus far, neither the hard determinist nor anyone else has given us good reason to believe otherwise.

Incompatibilists who believe in free will usually argue from the existence of free will to the denim of causal determinism. Their argument goes like this:

1. If every event has a cause (the doctrine of causal determinism), then there is no free will.

2. There is free will.

3. Therefore, it is not the case that every event has a cause (causal determinism is false).

But if causal determinism is false, causal indeterminism must be true. And we have already seen that indeterminism is not a satisfactory theory of free will.

Libertarians (incompatibilists who believe in free will) say that we can avoid indeterminism by distinguishing between two different types of causation: event causation and agent causation. Event-causation occurs when one event brings about another event, such as when one billiard ball collides with another. Agent causation occurs when an agent or person brings about an event, such as when a person raises her arm. Thus libertarianism does not claim that some events are uncaused. Instead, it claims that some events are not caused by other events.

Although Aristotle appears to have been a libertarian, the first modern libertarian was Thomas Reid (1710-1796). He saw clearly the inadequacy of compatibilism. Being able to do otherwise if you choose otherwise is not sufficient for free will, for you may not be able to choose otherwise. In order to have free will, you have to be able to choose otherwise. In Reid's view, only if you have the power to choose otherwise - only if your choice is up to you - are you free.

Common sense tells us that statements like "I raised my arm," "The bank robber shot the bank teller," and "John raked the leaves" are sometimes true. Each of these statements seems to say that an agent brought something about or made something happen. Libertarians see no reason not to take these statements at face value and accept the existence of agent-causation.

Determinists who wish to deny the existence of agent-causation must show that all such statements are really statements about event-causation. In other words, they must show that all statements attributing an action to an agent are reducible to statements attributing causal relations to physical events. To date, no determinist has provided such a reduction. And there is reason to believe that no determinist ever will.

For those who still find agent-causation mysterious, two other considerations may help clarify it. First, agent-causation is no more mysterious than event-causation. Even though no libertarian can provide a complete analysis of the difference between an event's happening and an agent causing an event to happen, no determinist can provide. a complete analysis of the difference between two events happening one after the other and one event causing another to happen. So the inability to analyze agent-causation is not peculiar to that type of causation.(5)

Second, agent-causation appears to be more fundamental than event-causation because we are directly acquainted with it. We learn what causation is by causing things ourselves. As Thomas Reid realized, "the concept of an efficient cause may very probably be derived from the experience we have had . . . of our own power to produce certain effects." Without an understanding of agent causation, we would not be able to understand event-causation.

To accept agent-causation, you don't have to be a substance dualist. That is, you need not take agents to be Cartesian minds. Agents or selves can be considered to emerge from minds in the same way that minds emerge from physical objects. When a physical object (such as a brain) achieves a sufficient degree of complexity, a mind emerges. Similarly, when a mind achieves a sufficient degree of complexity, a self emerges. Both minds and selves can cause things to happen. Minds can affect physical objects through (downward) mental-causation while selves can affect minds through (downward) agent-causation.

Agents (persons, selves) are self-conscious beings who are capable of forming second-order desires. They know what things motivate them, and they can decide whether or not they want to be motivated by those things. So we can agree with Frankfurt that free actions are those that are caused by second-order volitions. But if the second-order volitions themselves are not caused by the agent, the actions they cause are not free. By requiring that second-order volitions be caused by the agent, then, libertarianism avoids the problem that undermined hierarchical compatibilism.

Thus we have excellent reasons for believing that at least some of our actions are - despite the existence of determinism almost everywhere - free.


1. Thomas Hobbes, The Questions Concerning Liberty, Necessity and Chance, 1656 (Volume 5 of collected works).

2. Richard Taylor, Metaphysics, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: PrenticeHall, 1992), pp. 49-50.

3. Harry G. Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person," Journal of Philosophy, 68 (1971): 5-20.

4. In addition, philosophers have devised a decisive, but technical, argument showing the incompatibility of free action and causal determinism. See, for example, Carl Ginet, On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

5. Recently, some excellent analyses have been put forth by Robert Nozick, Timothy O'Connor, and others to help explain how agent causation is possible. See Agents, Causes, and Events, Timothy O'Connor, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Lewis Vaughn is Executive Editor of FREE INQUIRY. Theodore Schick, Jr., is Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College. They are the authors of the forthcoming book Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments (Mayfield).
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Author:Vaughn, Lewis; Schick, Theodore, Jr.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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