WillFor as long as there have been thoughtful people, there probably have been thoughtful people who doubted that we are, in fact, responsible for our thoughts and actions.

Whether it is gods, God, or cause and effect that is thought ultimately to rule the universe, a thoughtful person can easily question whether or not he is the ultimate cause of his thoughts and behaviour and, for this reason, easily question whether or not he should be held accountable for them.

On the one hand, this is easily done because the free will discussion is typically framed with inhuman and, essentially, divine expectations for our will. Framed in this way, it is thought that our will is free if and only if we can do other than what is demanded of us by any cause at any moment. If a thought, action, or decision is best described as the effect of any cause other than a cause outside of all causes, our will is judged insufficiently free to be called free. Free will, framed in this way, is so kooky and magical, it’s very easy to doubt and almost certainly impossible to find.

On the other hand, it’s easy to call into question the existence of a free and human will because there are so many repeatable and reproducible instances in which a person feels she is responsible for her thoughts, actions, and decisions and clearly is not. Whether it is a tumor in the brain or group dynamics or unconscious mental processes, time and again, people often feel like they are freely choosing when they are, in fact, not.

Alfred R. Mele offers a thoroughgoing defense of free will in his slim and accessible Free (2014). Although he convincingly questions some of the arguments and experiments that motivate recent claims that our sense of free will is illusory, he eventually concedes, “[i]f you think that having a free will requires being totally free from situational influences, you should conclude that there’s no free will.” This is an important and admirably honest concession to make. It also neatly illustrates that the debate about free will is definitional in nature.

The crux of the problem, ultimately, is that our brains are subject to the same laws as any other object in the universe, which means our “decisions” are as determined as the movements of billiard balls, even if they are as difficult to predict as the weather. Unless we expand our sense of self to include a bit of magic that exists outside of the laws of the universe, we are stuck. Our notion of a “free will” is impossible in this universe. Alternatively, we can redefine “free” or “caused” in whatever way that allows us to feel good about claiming that our will is “free.”

To this, one might respond, “Well, if free will doesn’t exist, why would we humans ever develop the notion that our will is free when it isn’t?” The evolutionary answer to that question is pretty simple. Either we developed a notion of free will because it provided us with a reproductive advantage or it is an evolutionary spandrel — a characteristic that emerged as a byproduct of some other beneficial characteristic. Alternatively, the whole notion of free will may be an intellectual spandrel best explained by our intellectual history rather than our biology. Our notion of free will might be as fanciful and unnecessary as the idea of God that spawned it.

Unfortunately, our modern moral and legal traditions are very much grounded in the notion that we humans have a free will. In the free will model, it is thought that people should be held accountable for only those wrongs they freely commit. If a person does not freely choose to do wrong, he should not be punished for it or, at least, not punished as severely.

Not surprisingly then, some people are concerned that if we give up on the notion of a free will, it will lead to moral chaos, in the same way that they fear atheism will lead to moral chaos. In support of this concern, studies have shown that students exposed to the idea that there is no such thing as a free will do sometimes act more immorally than those students who were not exposed to such ideas.

Fortunately, all is not lost if we give up on the notion of a free will or if we carry on believing in it. In the next post, I will discuss an approach to our moral and legal tradition, which doesn’t require a belief or denial of free will. Instead, it starts with the presumption that wrong behaviour is a symptom of an underlying cause that should be treated rather than punished. In effect, it represents an attempt to exorcise — once and for all — the ghost that still lurks in our moral and legal machine.


If this line of reasoning has piqued your interest, please take a look at some of my other posts that discuss our new and growing understanding of the brain.

I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the ideas discussed in this post.

If you want to be the first to receive what I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

9 thoughts on “A Ghostly Spandrel Puzzles the Will: “Free or Not Free?” Isn’t the Question.

  1. S. Lynch: “Our notion of a “free will” is impossible in this universe. Alternatively, we can redefine “free” or “caused” in whatever way that allows us to feel good about claiming that our will is “free”. ”

    Actually, we had to redefine “free” to mean “freedom from causation” in order to produce the silly paradox in the first place.

    In what other context has the word “free” ever implied freedom from causation? None.

    Free will is nothing more and nothing less than us making our own decisions for ourselves. The choice we make becomes our WILL at that moment. And as long as we were FREE to make the choice on our own, without being forced to choose or act against our will, then it is a choice of our own free will. Simple as that.

    The phenomenon is not an illusion. The mental process of deliberately choosing happens within the physical structure of our neurological system. It is therefore happening in the real world.

    What about determinism? No problem. A belief in reliable cause and effect logically implies that all events unfold in a single, inevitable way. People often get confused ideas about this because “inevitable” is most often used to speak of things “beyond our control”.

    But obviously the actions we decide to take based upon our own reasons, our own feelings, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic dispositions, and our own acquired experiences are authentically our own actions.

    All living organisms are purposeful causal agents. It’s in their DNA and their biological construction. They are animated to meet specific needs of survival. And if they have evolved neurological systems capable of experimenting, planning, evaluating, and choosing, then these mental process lead to their taking actions and causing things to happen in the real world.

    Any version of determinism that fails to take into account the causal agency of purposeful biological organisms is a fraud. It is FATALISM masquerading as determinism.

    Ordinary determinism is a characteristic of the real world.
    Ordinary free will is a phenomenon that actually happens in the real world.

    So you need to get used to the statement that “Every decision that we make of our own free will is also inevitable”, because that too is a fact.

    The notion of any conflict between these two facts is the only illusion in the room.

    1. We both agree the kooky definition of “free will” is the source of the apparent dilemma.

      We both agree a decision is made.

      Where we part company (I think) is the notion that there is a static “I” at the center of it all which makes the decision and that possesses a unified will that is free.

      The best science we have today indicates that we are made up of very many modules/minds all of which have the ability to make the decision, while an interpreter module comes up with an after-the-fact story to give a sense of coherence over time.

      Michaels S. Gazzaniga puts it this way:

      “It is the interpreter device that takes the inputs from the massively modularized and automatic brain of ours and creates order from chaos. It comes up with the “makes sense” explanation that leads us to believe in a certain form of essentialism.”

      If you accept Gazzaniga’s characterization, then, our only disagreement is whether or not their is any practical value in making a statement like “Every decision that we make of our own free will is also inevitable.”

      You think such a statement is valuable. I think it will encourage people to get entangled in the old apparent dilemma. You’d like to win the debate. I don’t think there is anything to win. It can only be set aside for a more interesting and productive conversation.

      1. Gazzaniga’s characterization is about as useful as saying the pedestrian was run down by four wheels, a radiator, a carburettor, a steering wheel, and a hybrid engine. It’s nice to know the details when you’re engineering an automobile, but a bit elaborate when you’re trying to communicate that the guy was hit by a car.

        The point of “every decision that we make of our own free will is also inevitable” simply demonstrates that the two facts are not incompatible.

        Of those two facts, the fact of ordinary free will is significant and meaningful, especially in recognizing a person as an autonomous being, capable of learning and adapting, and of modifying their own behavior and their own circumstances.

        The fact of inevitability is pretty much useless, except to cause needless confusion. It is best to simply acknowledge it and then ignore it.

        All of the utility of determinism rides upon specific causes of specific effects. Sciences like physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on have served us well in giving us greater knowledge and control over our environment.

        But the specific fact of universal inevitability is fruitless. All attempts to draw meaningful inferences end up creating farce.

        But back to neuroscience. I truly doubt that all deliberate actions occur in the manner of post-hypnotic suggestions, where the rationale remains hidden from the conscious portion of the mind until the very end, where we must concoct an explanation of a behavior we never consciously intended.

        When I consciously decide to do something I find myself making multiple evaluations and adjustments (mini-decisions) which I observe consciously and can recall later from short-term memory.

        So Gazzaniga has some work to do before he can accurately describe how our minds actually work.

        I certainly do not wish to get people entangled in the paradox. I’m trying to show them the logical way out of the trap. We already have both free will and determinism simultaneously occurring in every decision we make.

        There is no need to sacrifice one for the sake of the other when we have both well in hand.

        And when you come out attacking free will for the sake of determinism, you’re the one fueling the paradox, not I.

        1. Gazzaniga has done a lot of work. He has quite a distinguished career. You might enjoy familiarizing yourself with his work.

          Here is a good introduction:


          Science often reaches conclusions that seem counter-intuitive at first. Very often, we have to set aside assumptions that once seemed uncontroversial in the light of new evidence. It’s early days in our understanding of the brain, of course, but there is lots of good evidence to suggest that our mind is not at all as it seems to us.

          1. I don’t question Gazzaniga’s science. I question conclusions outside his field of expertise.

            The car remains the car, even after we understand every single detail of how it works.

            We know the mind is a product of a variety of neurological structures and functional areas working together to produce our experiences of thinking and feeling. These include parts that perform the loops producing self-awareness. Scientific research into how this all happens within the brain is great and very useful, especially in detecting and treating mental disease or injuries.

            But knowing the mechanics of air/fuel mixtures and combustion are not necessary in order to drive the car. Driving the car is a different set of knowledge with its own concepts (steering, speed, keeping fuel in the tank, rules of the road, etc).

            And knowing the details of what goes on behind the scene during the mental process of deliberate choosing is not essential to performing that process. Nor does it change the significance and meaning of that process within a universe of cause and effect.

            That’s all I’m saying. How we conceive and utilize the concepts of autonomy, free will, and moral responsibility will not be significantly changed by neuroscience. And we should all be very skeptical of any attempts to suggest that the car no longer exists once we can catalog all its parts.

            1. It’s certainly possible that a deeper and more accurate knowledge of the brain’s operations won’t affect our behavior or assessments of that behavior, but I’m not convinced we should start with that assumption.

              Using your example, if I come to understand that I can’t keep my car in good working order by hanging icons from the mirror, it will affect how I drive it. When I come to understand that it is the gas pedal that determines its speed and not the volume of the stereo, that will also affect how I drive it. Understanding the mechanics of a car can and should affect how we drive it.

              Moreover, a deeper understanding of the brain has already had an impact. There are a whole host of behaviors we once considered lapses in moral or religious fortitude but we now recognize as mental illness. Our response to people suffering from these illnesses has changed considerably because of our understanding of what is happening in the brain (and body). People suffering from these illnesses have a very different understanding of themselves, too. We have a long way to go in exorcising all the demons associated with mental illness, but the discovery that it is a physical rather than a moral issue has been a huge shift.

              Returning to your car metaphor, the new research also suggests that metaphors like drivers and cars (or drivers and chariots) no longer fits the evidence. The mind does not drive the brain. Nor does any one part of the brain drive any other part of the brain. In practice, yes, this discovery may not have any impact on how people act or think about these issues, but, I suspect, for those who take this discovery (and others) seriously, it will.

              1. All good points. I’m pretty old now, and back in the 70’s and 80’s there was a lot of movement toward mental health, prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation that seems to have diminished over the years due to conservative majorities in congress and state legislatures.

                Worse still is their success in co-opting many churches to conservative agendas. The abortion issue was part of that. And today a radically non-Biblical view of LGBT is scaring the pants off many fundamentalist denominations.

                On the other hand, the Episcopal church a couple days ago made sweeping changes to their marriage rituals to fully accommodate gay couples. So maybe even God is coming around on the issue 🙂

                I ran into the determinism “versus” free will paradox as a teenager at the Richmond Public Library, probably reading Spinoza. But reading some of the pragmatists like William James showed the flexibility of our concepts and how abstract metaphysical issues disappear when we ask “what practical difference does it make?”

                The idea of prisoner rehabilitation rests upon the concept of autonomy. A person can learn to make better choices if given the education, skills, and training needed to open his or her mind up to new, more appropriate choices.

                Upon release, we expect the offender to make different choices on his own, autonomously, of his own free will.

                If there is no free will then there is no rehabilitation. There is only a fatalistic dependence upon what inevitability brings about.

                So, I’m still hoping for the correct conclusion from neuroscience, that we have sufficient control (with some initial assistance) of our own lives to recover, and become better people who make better choices for themselves.

                And I fear that all this talk attacking free will and autonomy destroys that capacity. For example, Dr. Eddy Nahmias summarized several studies of people who were told that “science has discovered that fee will is only an illusion”. The studies showed that after hearing these statements they were more likely to cheat and behave aggressively.

                Here’s the link if you’d like to see it:


  2. Thanks for the link to the article! It’s very much appreciated.

    I know of the results of that study (or one very similar) but I haven’t seen the original paper. I will take a look.

    Your concerns about whether or not there will be room for rehabilitation is very important. And that’s exactly where I’m headed next. I think David Eagleman offers a really promising approach in his book Incognito. I will explore it in my next post. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    The pragmatists are a huge influence on my own thinking. I think the path I’m taking on these issues fits well within that tradition.

    Well done, Episcopal church! 🙂

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