Freedom Between Necessity and Chance

A new neuro-cognitive model shows how we may escape to freedom.

Posted Aug 07, 2019

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

The debates over free will belong to the most important and the most frustrating debates there are. In many a post, I have taken the view–with increasing stridency–that the radical, libertarian conception of free will is the only one worth debating, and that we then must conclude that the notion of libertarian free will is incoherent. Therefore, I have argued, free will is an illusion.

My argument boils down to the claim that we can comprehend the idea of causal necessity or determinism, and that we can also comprehend the idea of chance, or indeterminacy. What we cannot comprehend is the idea of radical free will, which states that a new causal chain can be initiated in a way that is neither causal nor driven by randomness. To claim such a thing is to claim an uncaused cause, which is, in my opinion, a metaphysical or religious idea, but not a rational one. To comprehend the behavior of human and non-human animals as well as the behavior of inanimate systems, a mix of necessity and chance is necessary and sufficient. There is nothing else.

Thomas Hills (2019) presents a fascinating neuro-cognitive model that aims to construct a conception of free will from known and reasonable design features of the mind. In so doing, Hills goes beyond the two usual strategies for the defense of free will. One strategy is to claim the reality of free will on the basis of our introspective perception that we have it. Hills realizes that this perception itself needs to be explained instead of being used tautologically as an explanans. The other tired strategy is to claim free will on the basis of our desire for punishment. To say that we must believe in free will so we can punish transgressors without compunction is self-serving. It says more about us than about the psychology of the transgressing agent. Hills does not even dignify this view with a comment.

Hills’s own account makes a critical assumption, which he does not state explicitly, but which pervades his essay. This assumption is that we must look at multiple behaviors. A single act or a single decision cannot tell us anything about its origins. Advocates of traditional views of free will often miss this point. They claim free will for themselves because they feel they could have acted differently in this instance, or they attribute free will to others who broke a rule, a norm, or a law, claiming that these offenders could have controlled themselves but chose not to. Yet, it is clear that both the presence of deterministic causality and the presence of true randomness can only be estimated when considering the presence of patterns, or the lack thereof. To say, for example, that the number 3 is a random number is meaningless. What needs to be understood is the process that generated the number. And so it is with events of the mind.

Hills’s model confronts the fact that when we look at sets of numbers or acts, we have the mathematical tools to evaluate the sets’ fit with randomness or with systematicity. There is no third option at this level of analysis. Yet, Hills proposes an interesting way to think about a notion of freedom in a universe of necessity and chance. I will now attempt a brief summary of his argument. As I might err in my presentation, I encourage all interested readers to take a look at Hills’s article to reach their own conclusions.

Hills’s definition of free will anticipates the critical contribution of his analysis, namely the idea that freedom and will stand in dialectical opposition to each other. “Free will,” he writes, “can be defined as the ability to be free from one’s past and yet to simultaneously act in accordance with one’s will” (p. 1). The second part of this definition highlights the necessary presence (in the human) of a historical self, which is composed of wills and thus of necessity and predictability. The first part states that this self must transcend itself and its historical boundedness if it wants to be free. How does the self do it? 

The first ingredient in Hills’s model is behavioral variability—specifically, the kind of variability that is random or at least appears to be random. Many nonhuman animals have mastered the production of such behavior. Hills reviews examples from the areas of foraging and predator evasion. Being able to produce variable behavior in the right context yields adaptive advantages. Hills noted in conversation that he is not a human exceptionalist, yet his model comprises further elements that appear to be limited to the human mind, at least in their exemplary forms. Of these, the capacity for effortful thinking and the conception of a self are critical ingredients of the model.

And here we get to the crux of the argument. Hills asks us to envision a mental system that has higher-level goals (and wills), self-awareness, and the ability to think and choose. If this system (your mind) remains rigorously true to itself, knows itself, and acts accordingly, it will not be free. It will be exploitable by others and bored by itself. To overcome this, this mind can generate randomness. Again, nonhuman animals can do this too, but only humans (we think) can do this with effort. Hills reports that studies have shown that when humans are asked to produce random events, they do worse when their attention is simultaneously taxed by other tasks. Where this desire to produce random events is coming from the model does not say. It may well be determined by previous mental states. The point is that we have now injected randomness into the game, and thereby undercut strict determinism.

A distinction must be made here: In one scenario, a set of random behaviors is created. In another scenario, a random set of alternatives is generated, perhaps by processes of random sampling from a person’s own memory or imagination. This set is then the basis from which the person chooses one alternative to act upon. The first scenario seems like a departure from the libertarian notion of free will. There is no third force. There is only a shift in the mix of necessity and chance. The second scenario is more intriguing. Here, necessity and chance begin to interact in novel ways. The will, coming from necessity, produces randomness, and then the will – in the service of superordinate goals such as survival or mere happiness – picks one of the randomly generated alternatives. This choosing will, according to Hills, is itself not free or unpredictable. In conversation, Hills confirms his agreement with Karl Popper whom he cites as saying “the selection may be from some repertoire of random events, without being random in its turn” (p. 5).

In sum, my reading of Hills’s contribution is that he presents a psychologically plausible account for how behaviors and choices can be generated by an interplay of deterministic forces (the will) and indeterminate ones (chance). It’s the recognition of the trade-off between will and freedom that lifts this model above the din of the familiar debate. Where there is only the necessity of will, there is no freedom; where there is the only chance, there is no self. The self must relax in order to experience freedom, in order to grow, in order to be creative. There is no need for a metaphysical third force of free will. The interplay and interaction of necessity and chance can do the necessary work.


Hills, T. H. (2019). Neurocognitive free will. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 286.