What is Free Will?

This post continues my discussion of free will and determinism in neuroscience. Due to the relatively brief nature of these posts, this discussion is incomplete. However, I hope it spurs additional discussion. I believe addressing free will and determinism allows us to understand the underlying theories and implications of neuroscience and social science research as well as the practical application of that research.

For this article, the main questions are: “Is behavior biologically determined?” and “Do humans have free will?” I will not address in this post the argument between compatibilism and incompatibilism. In response to comments and questions about my previous post, I thought it necessary to attempt to define free will before I write further posts on this general topic of free will and biological determinism in the neurosciences.

In reading some comments to my post one fairly common definition — at least an operational definition — of free will was randomness. In other words, in a psychology experiment, for example, free will is part of the unexplained variance — the randomness in the data. Equating free will with randomness — overtly or not — is something I have heard and read repeatedly.

However, I do not believe that free will can simply equal randomness. Randomness is chance. It is the flip of a coin or the roll of a die. Randomness is unpredictable. However, let’s go with the assumption that free will equals randomness. One of the simplest forms of randomness is a coin flip. That coin flip might seem random, at least the outcome might seem random, but suppose we understand the composition of the coin. We know it has a particular mass; we know the density of the metal as well as any variations in density throughout the coin. We know its precise coefficient of friction, its air resistance, its rotational velocity, and so forth. We understand everything about the chemistry and physics of the coin’s flip. With this comprehension, we can predict with 100% certainty the outcome of the flip. Based on our knowledge we can predict perfectly the outcome. However, our knowledge or predictions do not cause the outcome.

In other words, even with a perfect prediction of the outcome of the coin flip, that knowledge did not cause the randomness of the result. So, am I arguing that randomness is a good definition of free will? No. If we can understand all the chemistry and physics of the coin and its flight, we can then state that the flip of the coin merely appeared random but was in fact determined by the particular interaction between physics and chemistry. In other words, the outcome of the coin flip was determined by the physical world – by the materials of the coin and the interaction of those materials with our material world – even if our knowledge of the material world did not determine the outcome. Therefore, we can create a deterministic explanation for the seemingly random event.

This demonstrates that what appears random can be explained away as determined. Researchers even have deterministic and indeterministic explanations for quantum theory, which also indicates that defining free will as randomness is not sufficient. Thus, randomness is a poor definition of free will because if free will is nothing more than randomness, once we understand our material world perfectly we will perfectly explain all randomness, all previously unexplained variance. This is what some neuroscientists are trying to do with human behavior, although few are willing to take the hard stance of completely denying free will.

So what is free will? I’ll start with an example. Free will is standing out in the sunlight and denying that the sun is shining. Free will can be defined as choosing one’s actions or course. Free will also is frequently defined as indeterminism. What is interesting is that this definition meaning “not determinism,” relies on determinism to define free will. Why do many use determinism to define free will? Because determinism is easy to define — it is a concrete concept. Additionally, it is one of the major philosophical foundations of modern science, in part because we can easily create operational definitions for determinism.

In the biological sciences and neurosciences, in particular, determinism is inextricably tied to biology and materialism (i.e., biological determinism). Most neuropsychologists seek to explain behavior as determined by the interaction between biology and environment (many may have a soft deterministic view but they still want to know the causes of behavior). In forensic (legal) cases, neuropsychologists often clash with the legal system; psychology assumes biological determinism (i.e., causal determinism) whereas the legal system assumes free will (while it does not necessarily deny some form of determinism, the main emphasis is on free will).

In the end, I did not really define free will other than saying that it is not randomness and it is not determinism. Even defining free will as choosing one’s own course or actions is an incomplete definition because as demonstrated above, it is still possible to explain those choices as determined if we resort to reductionism of behaviors. This leads to one of the major problems with determinism — that it cannot really be falsified by science (after all, science does assume determinism to start) but that is a different discussion altogether. As David Hume once said (I’m paraphrasing), “[The nature of free will is] the most contentious question of metaphysics.”

In my next post I’ll address an alternative set of assumptions (i.e., beliefs or explanations) to determinism, particularly biological determinism as is found in neuroscience.

  • T_U_T

    If free will is just indeterminism then random white noise generator is the freest thing int the universe.

  • Hi Jared,

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

    Perhaps free will is being aware of an impulsion to behave one way and not doing this but something else. Eg I want to swear at simple minded determinists but choose to engage them in conversation instead(?)

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  • Stephen Pritchard

    Ignoring quantum physics for a second:

    The world = deterministic
    The world = me + ‘the rest of the world not me’
    “The rest of the world not me” is *not* deterministic

    Because the “me” can act on and influence “the rest of the world not me”.

    So once you define something and call it a ‘self’, then free will easily follows. The real question is not ‘is there free will?’, its ‘is there a self?’

    Can you really draw a boundary between you and the rest of the world in a scientific manner?

  • I agree T_U_T – free will cannot simply be indeterminism. It’s such a hard concept to really define. It’s a bit like describing the taste of salt – we know what it tastes like but it’s quite hard to describe it, especially if you don’t use things like “it’s not sweet” and so forth.

    Thanks Evan and thanks for your example. That example is similar to what many neuroscientists view about free will. They believe that our actions are determined, except for just at the end when we can make a choice and stop that behavior. That’s how many neuroscientists reconcile free will with determinism – free will holds the trump card that can be played to overcome natural (deterministic) behaviors. That’s a bit simplistic of an explanation but it will do.

    Stephen, you raise some excellent points. I can’t really address the question of whether or not there is a Self in part because it’s not an area I’ve studied much but also because it starts a completely different (but related) philosophical discussion. There is a fair amount of “selfhood” research in psychology and neuropsychology, it’s just not something I’ve read yet.

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  • u joints

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  • bob

    I think we talk about free will the same way we talk about our emotions and thoughts – like they have an existence apart from “us”. This sensation of existing is partially the result of the fuctional necessity of a point of view. The sensation of an ongoing point of view leads us to falsely infer that we exist somehow separately from our environment. This sensation is so strong and we have invested so much meaning into it, that, under normal circumstances, we equate its reality with the appearance of phenonomen.

    Scientific materiialism takes the apppearance of phenonomen as the definition of reality. But this reults in a basic error – that things exist somehow separately from each other. Phenonomen exist only in relation to other phenonomen. The appearance of functionality requires a point of view. Parts are only parts because of their relation to a whole. A whole is a whole only because it has parts and becuase we identify a function for it.

    The sensation of free will exists without a doubt. That sensation has functional value in our cognitive processes increasing our ability to adapt and respond to our environment. What’s wrong with that?

    Oh of couse MEANING! What gives life meaning is helping each other. Everything else is extra and just gets in the way.

  • Sergio Pulido

    “Free will can be defined as choosing one’s actions or course”


    I think there are a lot of things that makes us take a course of action that we think we made alone, but we didn’t

  • sandy

    it most important part of our body so we must care for it…And also advise to other people for be carefull.

  • bill d

    you can not stop being you , therefore you have no free will , i thought that neurologists had already proved that the action centre of the brain kicks in before the recognition part ?

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Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.

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