Do You Have Free Will?

What caused you to arrive at this article? An advert?  My shameless self-promotion? An innate desire to learn more about free will? There are many reasons you may have ended up here: The true question is: Did you cause you to arrive at this article? Or was it something else? Did you exercise free will, or did something determine that you would arrive here, at this very moment? Recently, in the world of science and philosophy Libertarian Free Will has come under attack. To determine whether this attack is justified we will examine the popular positions on free will and see which stands up best to some reason-based analysis. However, before we do that, some definitions are in order.


 Libertarian Free Will
The view that all or some human actions are freely chosen. An action is free only if the agent could have done otherwise.


The view that all events are caused by past events such that nothing other than what does occur, could occur.

The view that free will and Determinism are compatible.

....and now, if you have a moment, I'd like to talk to you about or Lord and Saviour...

Libertarian Free Will- The Religious Position

The religious position on free will often arises as a solution to Epicurus' Trilemma. In short this is the principle that it is impossible for Evil, an all-powerful God and an all-loving God to exist at the same time. A simplification of how many Christians reach the conclusion of Libertarian Free Will existing is presented below:

1. Some Omnipotent (all-powerful) and Omnibenevolent (all-loving) God Exists
2. Evil Exists
3. If this God allows Evil to exist, then it must be because he has granted us free will to make good and bad choices.
4. Therefore, Free will exists.

The initial problem of course, is premise 1 as it is completely unfounded. However, we can illustrate the true problem with religious Libertarian Free Will more clearly with another set of premises.

1.An Omniscient (all-knowing) God exists.
2. Therefore, God knows everything we are going to do in the future.
3.Therefore, the future is set as God has a map of exactly how it will occur.
4. Your choices are already determined.

The vast majority of religious people believe in an Omniscient Deity and Libertarian Free Will, but these beliefs seriously contradict one another. If an Omniscient Deity exists, then the future is set and so it seems the only position that makes any sense for the typical religious person is Determinism. This could be the one area in which the Calvinists were correct.

Libertarian Free Will- The Secular Position

Moving on from the religious position, there are also many atheists who believe in Libertarian Free Will. This position it seems, is very hard to defend upon examination. I have constructed what I see as the only premises that can reach the logical conclusion of free will existing below.

1. I am aware of every factor that may influence my will
2.I can resist every factor influencing my will
3.My will is under my control
4. I have free will

For Libertarian Free Will to truly exist we must be aware of every factor that may influence our will, otherwise how can one be sure our will is free? As it stands, we are not aware of every factor that may influence our will and therefore we cannot logically reach the conclusion that it is free. Secondly, if we could prove the first premise to be true, we would then have to say that we could resist every factor that may be attempting to influence our will. Another statement which the evidence for is at least absent if not supporting the opposite conclusion.

Example of the shortcomings of Libertarian Free Will
 According to a recent poll conducted by Pew Research Centre around 99.8% of people in Afghanistan identify as Muslim. According to the Bahamas Census of 2010 around 95% of people identify as Christian. When faced with statistics like these we can ask ourselves what is more likely : That every person who identified as Muslim or Christian here made the choice freely, without external factors influencing their decisions or that they were influenced by their environment, surroundings and experiences to decide to identify as a member of that religion. From this data we can say that if you're born in Afghanistan, there is a much higher chance you will be born a Muslim than if you were born in the Bahamas. Here we have location, influencing your religion, which then influences many decisions you will make for the rest of your life.

The main problem with claiming Libertarian Free Will exists is that for one to truly exercise it, one must know every single factor influencing their decision and be able to control those influences.

Hard Determinism

Many atheists, like prominent neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, have a Hard Determinist world view. In short, they believe the future, is determined by the past. 
The most common argument for Hard Determinism is the Argument from Sufficient Reason and it is based upon the theory of cause and effect:

1. Every event is caused by another event.

2. We do not have control over the events of the past, which cause the current events.

3. We do not have control over current events.

4. Everything we do is caused by forces over which we have no control.

5. If our actions are caused by forces over which we have no control, we do not act freely

6. We do not act freely.

It is a true characteristic of the physical world that every event is caused by another:

Example Showing the Material World is Deterministic

The ball is flying through the air. The ball is only flying through the air because it was hit by a bat; the bat only hit the ball because the man swung his arm, holding the bat, towards the ball

In other words, scientists tend to agree that the physical world is Deterministic and often go as far as to say that all the actions in the physical world could be traced back to one action, which caused them all. Many supporters of Libertarian Free Will argue that just because the physical world is like this, doesn't mean our mental states conform to this rule. However, mental states can be reduced to physical states:

Mental States= Brain States    Brain States= Biological States     Biological States=Physical States.

A clear form of the argument for Hard Determinism comes in the following form:

1. Our will is determined by our genetics, environment and past experiences.

2. Our genetics, environment and past experiences are out of our control.

3. Our will is determined and out of our control.

4. We have no Libertarian Free Will.

Our genetics, where we are born and our nurturing as a child determine our environment, our environment determines our experiences and these things combined make us who we are, and determine our choices. 

Sam Harris' Example

In Harris' Book called "Free Will" he gives a real life example similar to this:

A man we will call "Bob" broke into the house of a family. He assaulted the father of the family, knocking him unconscious and proceeded to rape one of the children. 

Now if you accept the Determinist worldview, you cannot say that Bob could have done otherwise because well, he couldn't have. Harris goes on to state that if he himself was made up of every atom that comprised Bob, he would have done the same thing. This seems like a horrific statement but if we think about it on a simpler level, Harris is really saying: "If I was that rapist, I would have committed the rape".

The reason this is a good example is because it is necessarily true. If you were Bob, in the same state, with the same brain, the same morals, the same experiences you would have acted in exactly the same way.

An Argument Against Determinism

A common and perhaps the best argument against Determinism is the Argument from Randomness. In quantum physics, it appears that some things do occur completely randomly and many use this as an argument against Determinism. They argue that what causes our choices may be totally random and not determined. What is important to keep in mind here though is that while it may defeat Determinism, it also cannot be used as an argument for free will. The best way to illustrate this is with an example. Imagine you had to make every choice through your friend flipping a coin: if it landed heads you would say yes, tails you would say no. Is this free will? Obviously not. Your choices are determined by the result of the flip and thus not free. While the result of the flip is not determined, your choices are still determined by external factors. In this way, it is very similar to a Determinist worldview.

It remains to be seen whether it is possible to refute Hard Determinism, simply because it makes the most logical and scientific sense from what we already know about the world. However, there does exist another school of thought in the "Determinist Camp" which is becoming increasingly popular.


Compatibilists like Dan Dennet (pictured above) agree with Hard Determinists that the universe follows an order and that the past determines the future but also believe that free will and determinism can and do co-exist (hence the title, Compatibilism). What separates Compatibilism from Hard Determinism is that Compatibilists believe some human actions can be considered "free" even though they are determined if the determination comes from within ourselves. This can be quite difficult to wrap ones head around without using a scenario as an example.

A man is on the edge of a cliff, planning to jump into the water below.

Scenario A: The man jumps off the cliff into the water

Scenario B: Someone else pushes the man off the cliff into the water

A Compatibilist would agree with Determinists that in both cases the action is determined, in other words, it couldn't not happen and the man was always ending up in the water. But they would call scenario A "free" and scenario B determined or forced. They draw a line between "internal causes" and "external causes" and believe in "Degrees of Freedom". This concept is the recognition that the man is "less free" in scenario B than he is in scenario A. This seems like common sense, doesn't it? Well, not quite...

Hard Determinists refute Compatibilism on the grounds that they believe scenario A is just as determined as scenario B. They would state that every factor is really an "external factor" in that it is out of our control, thus there is little or no need to draw distinctions between what is in our heads and what happens to us. The concept of "Degrees of Freedom" is logically impossible in the Hard Determinist worldview as if everything is determined (as Compatibilists agree it is), then things cannot be "more determined" or "less determined", they are all simply determined. Therefore, everything is equally "not free". 

Lastly, on Compatibilism Sam Harris had this to say:

"Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: "A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings."

What does it all mean?

Hopefully now you have good understanding on the most popular positions on the subject of free will (if you are still struggling with Compatibilism, don't worry, so is everyone else) but what does it all mean? Well, a future article will deal with what it all means for society but for now you are able to make a completely free decision on which argument you agree with.

Or are you...?

Thank you for reading the article. We'd greatly appreciate it if you would post any thoughts, feedback, arguments or your own opinion in the comments below.

Writer: Jack Jones


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