welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Free Will

What Is Free Will?

Grant Bartley wants to know what the problem with freedom is all about.

To answer the philosophical riddle of whether people have free will, we first need to understand what free will is, or at least, what it would be. My goal here is to work out what free will must be if it does exist, and along the way, try to demonstrate that it must exist.

Some Choice Jargon

An attempt to define ‘free will’ might reasonably start by defining ‘freedom’. I will use the definition that freedom is the capacity to explore possibilities. This isn’t the only good definition of freedom, but it works well with the rest of what I’m going to say. By this definition, someone is free to the extent that they can explore possibilities or options, and even a simple animal, or even a bacterium, is free insofar as it can explore the possibilities presented by its environment.

But the freedom of bacteria is relatively limited. Creatures capable of thought can explore not only their immediate physical surroundings but also the world of ideas. This freedom to explore ideas is also not unlimited: the outer borders of that freedom are the limits of our imaginations.

The power of the will in the term ‘free will’ might be reasonably defined as the power of enacting choices or decisions made by a mind. We could say, wills make choices, so free wills make free choices. So, just by these definitions, free will is choice enacted by a mind from possibilities. Free will means a mind causing a state of being from options. So even just by defining the words, we understand that free will is conscious causation. The trick is to understand what this means. What is supposedly being caused by consciousness, from what options, for instance?

Our definition of freedom as ‘the ability to explore possibilities’ fits well with the fact that free will involves choice, since to choose is to decide between possibilities. And certainly, in terms of the freedom of intelligent agents, before there can be freedom to act, there must be the freedom to think. Choice must first mean that to some degree we choosers choose our own thoughts. You choose what to think, or what you want to do, before you enact any such choice. So what I’ll primarily mean by ‘choice’ is your specification of the contents of your mind, at least to some extent, with ‘choice’ only secondarily referring to any actions that may result from the mental deliberation. Thought comes before action, otherwise we’re not talking about rational choice but rash impulse. Indeed, if we don’t choose mentally before we act physically, we’re not talking about choice at all, we’re talking about an automatic reflex or response: a reaction or an impulse. So before any truly chosen bodily movement can be enacted, there must be a choice to move. This includes moving your mouth to speak. With this in mind, I’ll define choice primarily as the conscious specification of your next mental contents, such that your willing is your conscious specification of the next contents of your mind. Alternatively put, free will means the ability to choose one set of mental contents rather than others, potentially followed by action resulting from that choice. But free will is the capacity to specify one’s next mental content from a range of possibilities, and only consequently about enacting this choice physically.

What might the freedom to choose our contents of mind involve? And does this sort of mental causation actually happen?

First, this idea of choice makes sense only in terms of a mind being aware of ideas or options to choose from. Anything not a deliberate, conscious choosing between options I don’t think is properly called ‘choice’. So, strictly speaking, there can be no such thing as ‘unconscious choice’. By definition, when we talk about subconscious or nonconscious brain activity, we’re talking in terms of only physical causes, not in terms of any direct influence of conscious will. Nonconscious brain signal processing is not choice, but something which happens automatically, biochemically. Most of the brain’s activity isn’t directly associated with the making of conscious choice, and so is automatic in just this way.

Next, sometimes our decision-making is choice, that is, mentally deciding between alternative possibilities present to your awareness. But your mind doesn’t always explicitly present you with multiple choices from which to choose. Sometimes no distinct options are present to your awareness, and you must cause your next contents of your mind on the basis of the present content, through intuition or imagination. This is not choice, so much as making a decision. Nevertheless, I think a lot of your willing means you choosing from ideas emerging out of the background of your awareness and presented as vague possibilities. Here you dismiss or affirm options as they arise in your awareness. For example, you’ve just got off the train and walked out of the station: you’re thinking about what to do next: there are various ideas being suggested more or less prominently to your mind at this point. As you opt for one of these possibilities – just to think about doing it – it expands into becoming your next conscious thought – your response to your current desire to move.

Metaphysically speaking, someone who believes there is free will, that is, that there is as we’ve defined it, ‘autonomous mental content determination’, is called a libertarian. On the other hand, a promoter of the idea that there is no real free will is called a determinist, because for them all your so-called ‘choices’ are predetermined by previous events. For the hard determinist, free will is an illusion; there’s only the inevitable flow of physical events causing other events, and your mind somehow emerges from that.

Besides the libertarian and the determinist, there are compatibilists, who believe that despite all the activities of our brain cells being predetermined from the beginning of time, our mental responses are nevertheless still choices, because these illusions of causation would be the choices we would make if we were actually free to make them (or something like that).

Metaphysically, rather than politically speaking, I’m a libertarian. I believe in free will. That is, I believe there is autonomous mental deciding, at least as far as circumstances allow. Put another way: as a libertarian, I think my choices, although constrained and given direction by circumstances, are not determined by circumstances, or ultimately, by anything but my mind. Even though we’re constrained, there’s always at least options of thought we can choose between. Indeed, even if my thinking were beyond my control right up to the point of the choice itself, this wouldn’t stop the moment of choice itself being free. And as long as the moment of choice itself is free, there’s free will. So we can further define free will as an ability to specify mental contents which is not absolutely determined by external circumstances. I call such power ‘sovereign choice’; so free will is the capacity for sovereign choice. It means, for your choice to be free, nothing must ultimately determine the choice in the moment of choice except you.

Synapses Mandelbrotica
Image © Miles Walker 2023 Please visit mileswalker.com

Determining Against Determinism

So let’s now consider the most popular reason to not believe in free will: determinism. As I’ve already hinted, there are varieties of determinism. Strong or hard determinism is the doctrine that every physical event in the universe, including in the brain, is caused by preceding physical events; alongside the doctrine that there are only physical causes, not distinct mental ones, either because they say there are no distinctly non-physical minds (that view’s called physicalism) or because minds have no feedback into the physical world (that view is called epiphenomenalism). But there being no mental causation affecting our brains, either through physicalism or epiphenomenalism, would mean that what appear to be choices are mere illusions of choice. So strong determinism says there is no choice, only predetermined brain activity – alongside the illusion of thoughts making a difference to what that brain activity would be, which we call ‘free will’.

Strong or hard determinism is distinct from weak or soft determinism. Weak determinism puts external causes for our choices of our thoughts and actions in less absolute terms. So, rather than saying our thoughts are physically predetermined, it says that our choices are all influenced by external events. For instance, a weak determinist might say that someone is a criminal because of experiences that made and make him what he is. In the most immediate sense, this might refer to his addiction to crystal meth, for instance – but this was itself provoked by a violent upbringing and being moved from home to home…

Soft determinism is undeniably true. Our individual characters are all to a significant degree the result of factors beyond our control. These include our genes; our family circumstances; the number of siblings we have and whether they are older or younger; our cultural environment; and the specific set of personal experiences unique to our lives. Let us be absolutely clear that to affirm that people have free will does not imply that their freedom is unlimited. Even the most ardent libertarian allows that our choices are somewhat constrained, even to some extent directed, by factors beyond our consciousness, including the accidents of history which have made us what we are. What gives us free will is that, even given all the factors coercing or otherwise influencing our decisions, there’s still room for the making of choice not absolutely determined by these influences. Whatever forces act upon someone to influence or constrain their choice, free will means there is nevertheless a degree to which they choose a thought simply because they choose it. Again, free will requires only that the moment of choice itself must be free.

Some freedom at the moment of choice is not often denied on the weaker determinism, in which case we say that external factors are mere influences on our choices. Free will is only denied on the strong determinist account, in which choice, or any idea of your mind causing anything, is only an illusion. However, the idea that there’s no mental causation – the idea that human beings do not have free will – is a bad assumption which cannot be justified. It can’t be justified because strong determinism is false.

To establish strong determinism as plausible, for a start, a whole batch of evolutionary questions about consciousness need to be answered, such as, If conscious causation is not real, why did consciousness evolve at all? What would be the function of awareness if it can’t change behaviour? How could an impotent awareness evolve if it cannot change what the brain’s going to do help the human body or its genes survive? A related but slyly different questioning is, If there’s no choice, why did the appearance of choice evolve, so that the mind consistently misinforms itself of its own power? What exactly is being selected for there? Since determinism cannot answer these questions, we can know determinism is false. Or we can at least say we have good reasons to distrust strong determinists until they can give good answers to such basic evolutionary ideas.

Determinism is also contradicted by every experience of making a choice you’ve ever had. But why would you discount that evidence unless you’ve already made up your mind it doesn’t count? Determinists unjustifiably ignore the evidence of our experience of choice because they want to put their metaphysical assumption that all causation is physical above that evidence. On the contrary, I would say our experience of choosing is too authentic to plausibly be an illusion. So what if we can’t yet say how it works? Evidence is not evidence because we can explain it; it’s evidence because we can’t just think it away. This is the case with the experience of choosing, everpresent in our waking lives. The onus is on the determinist to show why this doesn’t count. They must prove free will is an illusion, not just assert it is.

Determinists have a big problem with morality, too. Ethics needs free will. How can we blame a burglar or a murderer if his burgling or murdering is the result only of causes he didn’t himself choose? Perhaps, you might suggest, this shows that morality itself is an illusion. But I would say if you don’t think that things such as rape, torture, the killing of innocents, racism, sexism, and many other evils, are actually morally wrong, then you are either lying or a sociopath. So another argument for choice can be put in the form of the logical syllogism called modus tollens. It goes like this: If strong determinism is true, there is no such thing as moral responsibility. But there is such a thing as moral responsibility. So strong determinism is not true.

Compatibilism is so called because it maintains that free will is compatible with strong determinism, which in turn implies that moral responsibility is compatible with strong determinism. Compatibilists argue that although our actions are entirely predetermined, we are nevertheless moral agents because our ‘choices’ are justified by reasons. But to me compatibilism is the wolf of determinism in a sheepish guise of moral respectability, assigning moral responsibility based on the mere illusion of choice. But this is would be responsibility an illusion couldn’t have. Thinking that we’re choosing when we’re not doesn’t make us responsible for our acts, any more than we’d be responsible for them if we were hypnotised into doing them. There too we’re thinking that we’re choosing our actions when we’re not.

For these reasons, the onus is on the determinist to demonstrate that physical causation is the only causation, before presuming there’s no such thing as mental causation, ie will.

Neither Determined Nor Random

Real choice must be reasonable choice. In order to be a choice rather than some arbitrary impulse, free will must operate under the influence of considered reflection. Acting for no reason, or where reason is of so little influence as to make the choice practically arbitrary, is equivalent to behaving randomly. We could say, irrationality and random impulses are functionally and ethically equivalent. On the other hand, in order to be free, choice must also not be absolutely determined by anything, including reasons. If our reasons determine our decisions, we’re not in control, our reasons are. But for free will, it must be you, freely operating your will. This is why I call free will sovereign choice. Determinism by reasons we might call ‘logical determinism’. So we need our choices to be not completely without reasons, otherwise we’d be talking about only a random response to stimuli. But we also need to avoid saying that our choices are determined by reasons. Rather than either extreme, we can say that free will must be informed by reasons but not necessitated by reasons. To be free, your mind must not be forced to its decisions by the ideas it’s employing; but reasons nevertheless must influence your choice, even persuade it. Or, as Gottfried Leibniz put it: “The free substance” – the will – “determines itself by itself, following the motive of the good recognized by the understanding, which inclines it without necessitating it” (Theodicy, 1710, my emphasis). He means that reason inclines the mind towards a good choice, but its choice is not necessitated by reasons. We might say that in choice, your mind is the pilot of your will, and your thoughts and reasons are the wind to which you set your will’s sails.

What Free Will Involves

So your choice of next mind state being free requires that nothing ultimately causes the choice except you willing it. We could say, a choice is not a choice unless it is made by the chooser at the moment of choice. In other words, you make the choice, and nothing causes you to make the choice other than the fact that it’s your choice. In more jargony terms, at the moment of the decision, the choosing must be ‘causally undetermined’; or, for your will to be free, your choice must be an uncaused cause. That is, the cause of your willing is your willing it, and nothing else.

Moreover, since choice, if it exists, must involve mental activity that is not physically determined, choice must in some sense be independent of the physical activity of the brain. Generally put, to not to be determined by the system of physical causes we call the physical world, choice must be made independently of that system. In other words, choice must be non-physical. The idea that free will must operate independent of physical activity to a degree was as far as I know introduced by Immanuel Kant. Kant calls the will ‘transcendental’ – by which he partly means that for it to operate, will must be not part of the causal system of the physical world (The Critique of Pure Reason, 1781).

Things get even more complicated. I’ll assume that it’s noncontroversial, even to you, that everything that happens in the human mind has a precise physical correlate in brain activity: a specific set of neuronal activity accompanies each specific set of mental contents, be they thoughts, experiences, or choices. If we define a ‘brain state’ as a given set of neuronal activities at a given time, while the ‘mind state’ is the mental contents at that time, this means a specific brain state underpins each specific mind state. So precise brain states accompany each aspect or moment of choice made by a mind. But this in turn means that a conscious choice of the contents of one’s mind must simultaneously be a choice of one’s brain activity. In other words, if you really choose what to think, you must thereby also set the neuronal activity physically underpinning the thinking you choose. Specifically, a choice by an embodied human mind has to direct the right neurons and synapses to fire in the right way. We can see this clearly if we consider a choice to act. Since voluntary movements of your body are demonstrably controlled through your brain, it’s undeniable that willing to do something must mean one set of neuronal activity being activated in the choice rather than another. You might ask, how could any voluntary movement of your body be enacted without influencing the part of the motor cortex that controls that physical movement by stimulating the right muscle contractions – for instance, moving your mouth to smile? So the determination of the right neural activity must be the starting point for the physical effects of any choice of movement for an embodied mind. To be effective in the physical world, the choices you make in your mind must cause specific neurons and synapses to fire, eventually sending signals along your nerves to stimulate your muscles to contract, and so cause your body to move in the way you will it to move. But even the case of just thinking, that is, choosing or specifying only thoughts, also requires the right brain activity to be specified – the brain activity that will neurologically underpin the chosen thoughts. Daydreaming, for instance, involves images, memories, and language, all through the brain. You can perhaps see why this might pose a problem for free will, since it seems to require mind over matter in the brain. How can a choice by a mere immaterial mind affect the physical workings of its brain?

I don’t have the space to get into this deeply right now, but to put my answer briefly, I think your choices can affect the state of your brain through indirect quantum observation. This has nothing to do with quantum indeterminism. Indeterminism, meaning randomness, could never be choice. Rather, my idea involves the creation of quantum reality through observation. You will probably have heard that quantum observation determines physical reality at a sub-atomic scale. I’m saying that this fact provides a possible mechanism for choice in the brain. The idea is that in choosing, the mind indirectly observes certain quantum states of the brain, and in this way selects them. I’ve made a video about this if you want to know more. The link is at the end.


What is free will? Allow me to summarise my choice of ideas. Freedom is the capacity to explore possibilities, and will is mental causation in action. This aware causation frequently involves a choice between mental possibilities. Free will is therefore primarily, or we might say definitionally, an ability to make mental choices between possibilities. Further, your will being free requires that the choice isn’t fully determined, either by prior states of the brain, or by reasons; but neither can choice be random. Rather, real choice happens when a mind, seeing options to make a choice between, or perceiving a situation it must make a decision about, after deliberation, makes an ultimately otherwise uncaused choice. In this sense, free will is an uncaused cause. It is the capacity for sovereign choice. In other words, you make the choice, and nothing ultimately causes you to make the choice other than the fact that you choose it.

Choice being undetermined by reasons does not necessarily mean choice is unreasonable. There may be plenty of ideas and thoughts informing your decision; yet ultimately, your choice is not absolutely determined by the reasons your mind deliberates with any more than it’s determined by physical events. Rather, for choice to be free – that is, for there to actually to be free will – it must be the case that you sovereignly choose given enough information for your choice to be ‘rational’ or ‘reasonable’, or at least, involving awareness to an as-yet-unspecified degree.

So free will is sovereign choice. But what’s that? It’s a mind autonomously specifying, first, its own contents. The bottom line is that free will is free mental causation – either of just the mind’s contents, or also provoking the body’s actions. Insofar as you can mentally cause things to happen, that far you have free will. If you say there is no free will, you’re basically saying there is no such thing as conscious causation. But what makes you think that is the case? Why, in particular, would consciousness exist if it doesn’t do anything?

© Grant Bartley 2023

Grant Bartley is the Editor of Philosophy Now magazine. His videos on consciousness and free will are free to watch at tinyurl.com/BartleyFreeWill.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X