Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Five Arguments for Free Will

None of them are compelling.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

I'll bear as lightly as I can what fate decreed for me. I know full well no power can stand against Necessity. — Prometheus Bound

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. — Sartre, Jean-Paul

If you think, like Sartre, that you have free will, how might you demonstrate it? Consider these five arguments (and then some).

First, you can dismiss the challenge, claiming that it is outlandish on the face of it. The experience of free will is so embedded in consciousness that it would be foolish to attempt a demonstration. Trying to demonstrate the capacity of free will would be as bizarre as trying to prove that you see the color red when looking at a rose.

This is not a good response. There is no alternative to seeing the rose as red lest you mess with the physical input or the constitution of your perceptual system. There are, however, alternatives to the idea that your behavior is caused by a will that is itself uncaused. There is necessity (i.e., the totality of the natural causal forces in play) and chance (random variation not reducible to causes). Since we model everything we study as the product of some combination of necessity and chance, we shall approach human experience and behavior in the same way. Necessity and chance are everywhere; they are exhaustive in our efforts to explain phenomena. The doctrine of free will denies this. It claims a special region for human behavior that is not occupied by either necessity or chance. The analogy of seeing the red in the rose and having free will is thus poor. If it were clear that the subjective experience of free will could not possibly be an illusion, then nothing we are subjectively sure of could be an illusion. But illusions are possible, aren’t they?

Second, you can follow John Searle’s (2013) example and announce that you will raise your arm and then do it. Voilà. Free will has been revealed! Or has it? What has been revealed is your ability to plan and execute a behavior. Your conscious awareness of this plan is not in dispute, and it may in fact be part of the causal chain. I have suggested that it can be (Krueger, 2004) when responding to Dan Wegner’s (2002) claim that conscious will is not only not free, but not even part of the causal chain leading to behavior. Your will to raise your arm is free in the sense that it is not constrained by shackles or heckles. The will can at times be free from interference from others; and that should be welcome news. But the will is not free from all antecedent conditions and causes. Consider again your conscious decision to raise your arm. The fact that your conscious awareness — by definition — begins with the appearance of conscious mental content does not prove that there is no unconscious, and causally relevant, mental content preparing the conscious experience. The absence of consciousness does not prove the absence of mind.

One way to put this is that your ability to act out of free will is easily confused with your ability to act with volition (i.e., to act with a will). Many non-human species of animal can act with or without volition. The dog running after the stick wants to get the stick. The sick dog twitching in a seizure does not want to twitch. You might insist to identify free will with voluntary action, but then you are just talking about will, not free will in the libertarian sense, that is, the will that arises uncaused in the mind.

Third, you might consider a simple choice task, such as an opportunity to drink a pinot or a cabernet. You pick the pinot and ask rhetorically, "How free was that?" Notice that this is a version of the Searle argument. Searle had a choice between raising his arm and not raising it. The claim that you could have chosen the cabernet proves nothing — because you didn’t chose it. The wind blowing from the East might say it could have blown from the West — but it didn’t. To say “I could have chosen differently” has no evidentiary value because it begs the question it is supposed to answer. It attempts to prove free will by asserting its reality; it attempts to refute determinism by asserting its falsity. Now suppose it’s a long night and you have many opportunities to sip a pinot or a cab, and you do so in an unpredictable order. You have succeeded in meeting an important condition of free will, but unpredictability is also a defining condition of chance. Was your random walk through the open bar free-willed? Chance wins because we already know it’s a feature within the universe. Free will still needs to carve out a niche.

Fourth, some religions (e.g., Judaism and Catholicism) insist on free will as a foundation of morality. God gave man free will so he may turn away from his evil inclinations and toward his good inclinations. In contemporary psychology, Roy Baumeister (2008) champions this view. Your free will, he suggests, shines when you resist temptation and do what is in your own long-term interest (salvation) or in the interest of the group (conformity, obedience). This view appeals to intuition. You feel the desire to have another glass of pinot, and then — after some internal struggle — you declare that you will stop because you have to drive home or because you have a bad liver. It seems — and is often portrayed as such — that you have won a victory over yourself. This of course is nonsense. Both inclinations, to drink and not to drink, are motives within your psychological system. The latter motive is grounded in fears (e.g., of others’ censure or sickness), whereas the former is grounded in desire (e.g., for a buzz). When you break an approach-avoidance conflict by acting one way or another, you reveal to yourself which will is stronger. You do not learn whether the "free" will has won the battle.

The religious argument ("resist temptation") intersects with the issue of predictability in an interesting way. Suppose you are at your freest and vanquish every temptation. Your behavior is now perfectly predictable as unfailingly socially desirable. How can a perfectly predictable person be free? This is a question that contributed to Nietzsche’s view that Christian morality is a slave morality, and to Dostoyevsky’s assertion that man’s desire for freedom is so great that he will eventually act in a self-destructive way lest he be enslaved by convention and predictability. Dostoyevsky’s man is still not free in the libertarian sense because his hatred of being fully rational is itself a will that wells up from the deep.

Fifth, you can ask rhetorically what would happen to you and the world if you didn’t have the free will that you think you have. Those who raise this question imply that free will stands between you and total anarchy. Without free will, you’d be roaming the streets, raping, pillaging, and burning. What is the evidence for that? There are some data suggesting that people cheat more if induced with ideas of determinism (Vohs & Schooler, 2008), but it’s a far cry from the break-down of social order free will enthusiasts have in mind (the replicability of this finding has come into doubt; Open Science Collaboration, 2015). It’s a cliché to think that without free will there can be no responsibility and no punishment. In fact, punishment makes more sense if you can attribute a deed to a preference, inclination, or attitude (a stable will) within the perpetrator than if you figure the perpetrator could have acted differently — and might act differently next time. The very idea of deterrence requires the rejection of free will; fear of punishment is a potent cause of good behavior.

And then some. Ken Miller, a biologist who believes that evolution begot free will and that this free will can now override the logic of evolution itself (see Krueger, 2018), granted in conversation with a theist that the belief in free will might be an illusion, but if so, it is a self-fulfilling one. I confess (I was not that theist at the table) that I was unable to follow the logic of this argument. Then again, it was a roundtable discussion and there was a bit of pinot.

Some have argued that any skeptical discussion of free will proves its existence. But those who argue for free will also feel that they are doing so out of free will. In other words, anyone discussing the topic contributes to the case for free will. The question of free will is thus begged and the skeptical imagination is beggared. A version of this argument is that skeptics attempt to persuade others of their position and it is implied that persuasion is granted only by an audience freely deciding to accept the message. Persuasion works in many ways, as a brief look at a social psychology textbook will confirm; the point is that when a communicator brings about an attitude change in the recipients of the message, we have a nice case for a causal story.

Ken Miller has suggested that the very existence of science, that is, the search for an understanding of necessity and chance in nature, is only possible if the scientists engage in research out of their free will. Science, then, cannot be understood in terms of necessity and chance. It follows that science cannot study itself. Therefore, science cannot comprehend itself, which means we cannot understand it.

If you think you have free will, you cannot produce a coherent set of explanations for your own behavior. To say that "I chose the pinot" is a perfectly comprehensible statement if you refer to the will. Your desire for pinot is greater than your desire for cab, and that may be so for myriad psychological reasons and causes that one might explore. To say "I had no preference that might direct my choice; I then freely created such a preference in the moment," explains nothing. If you truly look at yourself along these lines, tell us: Who are you?

Professor Lloyd’s Turing test. Any denial of free will is met with vigorous and heartfelt opposition (see some of the commentaries). Why? One reason is that people are horrified by the imagined prospect of losing their moral foundation. But there is a more direct, psychological reason. If free will is a psychological illusion on par with an optical illusion such as the Ponzo or the Poggendorf illusions, then no rational talk will change the illusory perception itself (Sloman, 1996). Lloyd (2012), elaborating ideas introduced by Gödel, Popper, and Turing, shows that the psychology of human decision-making makes the illusion of free will necessary (see also his taped lecture). Lloyd taps into quantum probability and recursive thought. The argument can be summarized thus: As you sit trying to reach a decision (e.g., what to order for dinner), your brain/mind works to find a solution. Unless this is a very simple decision, for example, because you always order the same thing and you know it, your brain/mind has to perform computations. By definition, the decision is reached only when all these operations have been executed. Therefore, and again by necessity, you and your brain/mind cannot foretell the final outcome. If you could, there would be a quicker way to reach a decision, but we are already assuming that the fastest route is being taken. Stated differently, if you are to run (in your brain/mind) a simulation of your brain/mind activity, then this simulation must contain itself, which reveals the recursive nature of this attempt and its intractability. One might say a mind trying to represent itself gets caught in a version of Russell's paradox (a set cannot contain itself).

Now, when you reach a decision, you have the accurate impression that you were not able to anticipate its outcome. You had to do the work of decision-making. This accurate sense of unforeseeability entails the inaccurate conclusion of freedom, that is, the idea that the decision could have been a different one. However, the process of decision-making was fully accounted for by necessity or perhaps quantum chance, but it cannot be predicted without cheating, that is, without violating its own assumptions. In short, Lloyd shows how the will is not free but must be perceived as such.

There is a hitch, and Professor Lloyd gets to it in the appendix. Here, he recalls how he, time and again, scrutinized the menu of his favorite Santa Fé haunt only to end up ordering the same dish of chicken rellenos every time. The issue here is that he failed to create a representation of a stable preference. Some people do, and they walk into the restaurant asking for “the usual.” Intriguingly, Lloyd’s wife was able to do the math and predict her husband’s choice. It is important to note that she did not simulate his mental decision-making processes, but abstracted historical data of the outcome. The wise husband sits down in the restaurant and asks his wife, “Honey, what will I have?”

A neuropsychologist chimes in. I want to give the last word to Elkhonon Goldberg, who, in his 2018 book on creativity states that "I have felt that the infatuation with the subject of consciousness both among neuroscientists and among the general public was an epistemological cop-out, which basically represented a reluctance to completely let go of the Cartesian dualism; that consciousness was soul in disguise; and that "like many recent converts we continue to honor the old gods in secret — the god of soul in the guise of consciousness'" (p. 64). Ditto for the god of free will.


Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Free will in scientific psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 14-19.

Goldberg, E. (2018). Creativity: The human brain in the age of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krueger, J. I. (2004). Experimental psychology cannot solve the problem of conscious will (yet we must try). Review of ‘The illusion of conscious will’ by Daniel M. Wegner. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 668-669.

Krueger, J. I. (2018). The drama of human exceptionalism. Review of ‘The human instinct: How we evolved to have reason, consciousness, and free will’ by Kenneth R. Miller. American Journal of Psychology.

Lloyd, S. (2012). A Turing test for free will. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 370, 3597-3610. DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0331

Open Science Collaboration (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349, aac4716. doi:10.1126/science.aac4716

Searle, J. (2013). Our shared condition – consciousness. TED talk.…

Sloman, S. A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 3-22.

Vohs, K.D., & Schooler, J. W. (2008). The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.