Free Will
Logo Homer's brain is rather small. What about his free will?

Free Will

Do we have a free will or is our perception of it only an illusion? This is a rather old question, as can be seen from the following quote from 1894 (agreed, to quote Steiner before the public is dangerous...):

"Is man in his thinking and acting a spiritually free being, or is he compelled by the iron necessity of natural law? Few questions have been debated more than this one. The concept of the freedom of the human will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents in plenty. There are those who, in moral fervor, declare it to be sheer stupidity to deny so evident a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who regard as utterly naive the belief that the uniformity of natural law is interrupted in the sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same thing is here declared as often to be the most precious possession of humanity, as it is said to be its most fatal illusion. Infinite subtlety has been devoted to explaining how human freedom is compatible with the working of nature, to which, after all, man belongs. No less pains have been taken to make comprehensible how a delusion like this could have arisen. That here we are dealing with one of the most important questions of life, religion, conduct and science, is felt by everyone whose character is not totally devoid of depth."
R. Steiner, "The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity" (German: "Die Philosophie der Freiheit"), Chapter 1

"Ist der Mensch in seinem Denken und Handeln ein geistig freies Wesen oder steht er unter dem Zwange einer rein naturgesetzlichen ehernen Notwendigkeit? Auf wenige Fragen ist so viel Scharfsinn gewendet worden als auf diese. Die Idee der Freiheit des menschlichen Willens hat warme Anhänger wie hartnäckige Gegner in reicher Zahl gefunden. Es gibt Menschen, die in ihrem sittlichen Pathos jeden für einen beschränkten Geist erklären, der eine so offenkundige Tatsache wie die Freiheit zu leugnen vermag. Ihnen stehen andere gegenüber, die darin den Gipfel der Unwissenschaftlichkeit erblicken, wenn jemand die Gesetzmäßigkeit der Natur auf dem Gebiete des menschlichen Handelns und Denkens unterbrochen glaubt. Ein und dasselbe Ding wird hier gleich oft für das kostbarste Gut der Menschheit wie für die ärgste Illusion erklärt. Unendliche Spitzfindigkeit wurde aufgewendet, um zu erklären, wie sich die menschliche Freiheit mit dem Wirken in der Natur, der doch auch der Mensch angehört, verträgt. Nicht geringer ist die Mühe, mit der von anderer Seite begreiflich zu machen gesucht wurde, wie eine solche Wahnidee hat entstehen können. Daß man es hier mit einer der wichtigsten Fragen des Lebens, der Religion, der Praxis und der Wissenschaft zu tun hat, das fühlt jeder, bei dem nicht das Gegenteil von Gründlichkeit der hervorstechendste Zug seines Charakters ist."
Nowadays the discussion is fueled by the discoveries of neuroscience. Many debates refer to the famous Libet et al. experiment, published under the title "Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential)" Brain (1983), 106, 623-642. It reports a physiological reaction (which correlates to muscular activity) prior to the moment at which the test person reports his/her conscious act to perform this movement.


What do we actually mean by "free will"? The Stanford Encyclopedia article starts with this funny remark:

"Free Will is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Which sort is the free will sort is what all the fuss is about. (And what a fuss it has been: philosophers have debated this question for over two millenia, and just about every major philosopher has had something to say about it.)" (O'Connor 2005)

In Heidelberger (2005) "freedom" is (following Locke) construed as a predicate for "action" rather that "will". However, the relation is close, since "will" is the stimulus for an action. According to Heidelberger this "freedom" of acting has three decisive components:

  • Freedom as the capacity to choose from alternatives.
  • Freedom as the capacity to bring about the action, i.e. to have the authorship of the action.
  • Freedom as the capacity to conceive oneself as an acting person.
  • For example the drug addict is missing the first component, the hijacked pilot the second and the little child causing a fire raising the third component. In each example one could argue for the presence of the two other capacities. However, only an action which can demand all three components can reasonably be called "free".

    Thereby it should become clear that the defense of "free will" (or actually "free actions") does not deny that many (if not most) actions are not-free. The debate is about the possibility or capacity to perform a free act. How often this capacity is exercised is an other story.

    The case against the free will

    The denial of "free will" has a long tradition. For example old style materialism which assumed that there were only atoms in the void has certainly no place for genuine mental entities. While this position is outdated, it is still common to deny the "free will" along with the mental in general, i.e. the question of the free will is part of the mind-body problem. The modern descendant of "materialism" is called "physicalism" and the argument against the concept of "free will" runs something like this (and is in fact rather independent from the above mentioned Libet experiment):

    1. We observe a strict correlation between mental states and, say, brain activity. By "mental state" one may think of e.g. a sense sensation, pain or thought. By "observe" you may think of EEG, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) or any other measurement and/or imaging tool applied in neuro-science.
    2. But given that the brain is nothing more and above than an assembly of cells it has to obey the corresponding laws of nature - essentially it is ruled by physics. Agreed, its enormous complexity makes it impossible for the moment to actually predict or "calculate" its behaviour. However, this is viewed as just a technical problem and not a matter of principle, because how could a piece of matter possibly violate the laws of nature, e.g. the conservation of energy or the second law of thermodynamics.
    3. But - and this is the final step - since the laws of nature leave no room for something like the "free will" it has to be an illusion. Some authors claim that especially the determinism of the laws of nature makes such a concept untenable. But even if you admit that quantum theory or thermodynamics are essentially statistical theories, there seems no place for "free will" in the equations. More technical it is often claimed that any mental causation of physical facts is problematic since cause and effect have to be similar.


    The above argument is based on a sort of physicalism, i.e. the thesis that "everything is physical" (see e.g. Stoljar, 2001). Current physicalism claims that the empirical world "contains just what a true complete physical science would say it contains" (Crane and Mellor 1990, p.186). But how can such an ontological authority of the "physical" (as opposed to the mental) be justified? Crane and Mellor make a very conclusive case that this is indeed not possible. They argue that neither any reference to reduction, causation or laws can support the alleged ontological authority of the physical (as opposed to the mental). I have given a sketch of their argument here. The main point of the argument is that one has trouble to find a proper definition of "physical" (e.g. a scientist 100 years ago would have given a completely different answer than a today scientist).

    The bottom line of Crane and Mellor is not a revival of dualism. In fact they take their argument to support the claim that

    "there is no divide between the mental and the non-mental sufficient even to set physicalism up as a serious question, let alone as a serious answer to it. Physicalism is the wrong answer to an essentially trivial question. [...]
    And saying that minds are all physical no more helps to explain how some physical things can think than saying that all flesh is grass helps to explain the difference between carnivores and vegetarians. This, therefore, should really be the last paper on the subject of physicalism. But we fear it will not be." (p.206)

    Free will and the Libet experiment

    The remarks on physicalism (see also here) show that any reference to it in order to refute "free will" or an ontological status of any other mental states is questionable. However, the findings of the Libet experiment appear to pose a more serious challenge. This experiment indicates physiological reactions (which correlates to muscular activity) prior to the moment at which the test person reports his/her conscious act to perform this movement.

    Among the philosophers who discuss this relation (and defend the free will) are for example Ansgar Beckermann (see for example this site) and Michael Heidelberger.

    • Heidelberger (2005) criticizes especially the claim that any experimental evidence could possibly refute "free will". According to him the liberty to choose among different options and to freely reflect this choice is part of the definition of "experiment". Thus the "free will" is constitutive for any experimental science and can not be refuted like any other scientific postulate. However, Heidelberger acknowledges that this paper does not touch the important question how freedom and the causal structure of the world are related. Most charming is his confession that the relation between free will and science should be seen as a riddle which needs the collaboration from science and philosophy for its possible solution.

    • In Beckermann (2006) he argues that the findings of Libet et al. do only refute a "free will" if one presupposes that it is related to "immaterial selves with the capacity to intervene into the natural order of the world from the outside" (p.2). However, this old dualistic picture is not the one Beckermann subscribes to. He sees human activities, cognition etc. as an integral part of the natural world. The observation that these capacities have a material basis (i.e. relate to specific brain activities) is similar to the fact that certain electronic activities inside a computer are the physical image of e.g. computing the sum of two integers. This computer methaper is supposed to show that one should not confuse the representation of something with this "something". He points out that one can easily entertain the idea that there are "meaning sensitive neurons in the brain" (p.7). This allows Beckermann to fit the human capacity to deliberate on different choices and to choose a decision to his naturalist outlook.


    1. Beckermann, A. (2006), "Neurobiological findings and free will: a philosophical perspective" , paper given at ESOF 2006, München
    2. Crane, T. and Mellor, D.H. (1990) "There is no Question of Physicalism", Mind Vol.99, 185.
    3. Heidelberger, M. (2005), "Freiheit und Wissenschaft! Metaphysische Zumutungen von Verächtern der Willensfreiheit", Neurowissenschaften und Menschenbild, Hrsg. von Eve-Marie Engels und Elisabeth Hildt. Paderborn: Mentis, 195-219. (PDF)
    4. O'Connor, T. (2005), "Free Will", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy
    5. Stolja, D. (2001), "Physicalism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy

    Other internet resources

  • Philosophy of Mind page by Paul Newall
  • Heidelberger on the mind-body problem and logical empiricism (German)
  • Beckermann tells his story again (German)
  • The two above articles are taken from this e-Journal Philosophie der Psychologie (German)
  • Introduction to "Philosophie des Geistes" by Michael Esfeld