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Do human beings have free will? Show more Show less
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Do we have control over our actions? If we do, what sort of control and to what extent? Free will is the power to act without the constraint of necessity or fate. It is the ability to act at one's own discretion. For centuries, people have wondered how freedom is possible in a world ruled by physical determinism. Reflections on free will have been confined to philosophy until half a century ago, when the topic started also to be seriously investigated by neuroscientists. Today, there are several irreconcilable positions about the existence of human free will.

Is there middle ground? Show more Show less

While we may not have complete control over everything we do, this doesn't mean everything is completely determined for us.
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Compatibilism or soft determinism

Compatibilists believe that determinism and free will are compatible.
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The Argument

“Compatibilism isn’t easy to explain. But it seems to jibe with our gut instinct.”[1] In this deterministic universe, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions? Compatibilism is an explanation that seems illogical, but argues that although your actions and choices are predetermined, that does not mean you’re not free. Free will can exist even if determinism is true, as determinism is not absolute.[2] The universe operates with law-like order, and past actions determine the future. But, there is also something different about some human actions and some of the actions we take are really free. So, if we ask whether a person jumps off a diving board or is pushed, in both cases the action is determined - it couldn’t not happen. But when the action of an agent is self-determined (e.g. they choose to jump), the action should be considered free.[3] Alternatively, if we cannot separate external and internal causes, maybe the answer is to say actions are more or less free? Patricia Churchland rejects the free/not free dichotomy but instead says we should ask not ‘do I have control?’ but ‘how much control do I have?’ This combines the determinist nature of the universe with the feeling of being free.[4] The philosophical implications could be that “when one forms an intention to act, one is significantly disposed to act but not yet fully committed. The commitment comes when one finally decides to act."[2] Evolution, history and culture have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.[5]

Counter arguments


[P1] While behaviour is predetermined, this is compatible with individuals also having free will.

Rejecting the premises

Further Reading

Kane, R. (2016). The complex tapestry of free will: Striving will, indeterminism and volitional streams. Synthese 1–16.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, 21 Apr 2020 at 07:58 UTC