Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are Some Scientists Serious About Denying Free Will?

Brains ruled by an oligarchy of unconscious systems? Not so fast.

This post is in response to
Could a Zombie Be Elected President?

Free will is our apparent ability to choose between different courses of action; it is closely linked to responsibility, guilt, and other feelings. Only actions for which we are free to either perform or not perform deserve credit or blame, a central issue in the diagnosis, treatment, and potential criminal prosecution of the mentally ill. If someone lacks free will, there appears to be no justification for rewarding or punishing that person for his or her actions. Free will also implies the power to break a causal chain of events, the processes known as determinism, in which physical laws cause each new event to follow directly from earlier conditions. But if the chain can be broken by the process of free will, our choices need not be dictated by earlier events. This issue has deep roots in ancient Greek philosophy and remains a focus of philosophical, religious, and (more recently) scientific debate.

More than a few philosophers and scientists actually claim that our free will is just an illusion. Perhaps they see themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place — they reject dualism (the idea that the mental and physical represent distinct aspects of reality) as unscientific. However, if they choose materialism (the mind emerges from the physical properties of brain) over dualism, perhaps the notion of free will must be abandoned. The reasoning seems to go something like this — if we can’t see how free will could possibly arise, maybe it just doesn’t exist. In the strong deterministic view, I had no choice other than to write this blog post, and you are destined to finish reading it (or not) whether you “want to” or not. Others avoid this extreme position and attempt to stake out a middle ground; some people in the materialistic camp claim that future science will somehow show that materialism and free will are compatible. These vexing questions have been around for centuries; at best, we can only hope to cast a little light on the mysteries.

Paul Nunez
Source: Paul Nunez

The accompanying figure provides a simple overview of the mind-brain problem: the so-called hard problem of how the amazing phenomenon of consciousness occurs. We know from numerous scientific studies that brain activity is closely correlated with mind activity. In simple terms, performing some mental or physical task occurs when certain parts of the brain “light up,” as measured with various imaging tools employed by neuroscientists. With this scientific background in mind, this figure appears to exhaust all the possible choices for mind-brain interactions, as indicated by the various arrows. In case 1, the brain creates the mind, the conventional scientific view. In case 2, the opposite somehow occurs. In case 3, a two-way interaction links brain to mind. Finally, in case 4, mind and brain are linked largely through unknown external environmental influences. Case 3 is just a combination of cases 1 and 2; cases 3 and 4 can also be combined. Of course, this over-simplified summary avoids the essential hard question — just what are the bases for the interactions represented by the arrows? Case 1 is often considered to be the most “scientific” position — the brain creates the mind, end of story. But, if this is true, how do we account for our apparent freedom to make choices? Again we are faced with the profound mystery of free will.

One motivation for taking the free will issue seriously stems from modern neuroscience studies employing fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) or EEG (electroencephalography). These studies show that certain brain regions “light up,” apparently before the associated conscious decision to act (let’s say pushing a button). It’s almost as if the person is implying, “I didn’t really mean to push that button; my brain made me do it.” In addition, there are clear differences between a subject’s detection of some external event and the conscious awareness of that event. Your brain will react to a snake on a mountain trail well before your conscious awareness of the snake, and this process is much more involved than just a simple reflex. Unconscious and pre-conscious (subconscious) mental functions operate over faster time intervals than conscious mental functions. The pre-conscious may apparently be viewed as incompletely formed consciousness, that is, pre-conscious processes partly determine which conscious processes emerge after significant delay. Other parts of our unconscious remain forever hidden from awareness, but exert important influences on our conscious mind, affecting our choices to act in certain ways. Interactions occur in both directions; the conscious mind may influence the unconscious and vice versa.

Many studies suggest that our free will requires healthy partnerships between conscious and unconscious systems. In special circumstances, like playing musical instruments, engaging in sports, or driving a car, we apparently recruit specialized unconscious agents with the ability to carry out certain acts quickly without conscious “permission.” In the example of driving a car, an important aspect of free will is the freedom to allow unconscious car braking in an emergency. Our mental health, not to mention freedom from prison, depends on proper control of such impulsive acts. Apparently, this control can be implemented well in advance of its operation in future situations, both the expected and the novel. Thus, free will involves far more than just impulsive decisions. We make important choices by employing directive processes that are spread out over time; in other words, free will carries substantial temporal depth. Maybe our free will is not quite as free as we thought, but it still seems pretty “inexpensive.”


Benjamin Libet, Mind Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)

Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain (New York: Penguin Books, 2014)

Paul L. Nunez, The New Science of Consciousness: Exploring the Complexity of Brain, Mind, and Self (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2016)

Raymond Tallis, Why the Mind is Not a Computer: A Pocket Lexicon of Neuromythology (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2004)

Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham, UK: Acumenb, 2011)