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

Posted on July 2, 2015


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.

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Posted in: Brains