The Science of Consciousness:

Chapter 3: Do we have Free Will?

What this chapter is about: Are we really free to make any choice we wish?

We think we are free to choose our actions at any time. We think that when we choose to do something, we could have chosen to otherwise. But the laws of physics determine processes in the brain. Thre is no obvious escape route provided by quantum mechanics. "Compatabilists" argue that free will and determinism can be reconciled.

A lack of free will is one of the most dazzloing (and controversial) conclusions in consciousness research. Even whether you believe in it or not is predetermined.

There is at least some comfort if you don't believe in free will: There's no point beating myself up about my life now, or punishing myself for mistakes I have made, because I couldn't have done anything else.

The study of free will has implications for humanity and the law. If a person could not have done otherwise, why should they be punished for acting in that way? And if psychopaths have different types of brain, why should they be punished for that?

"How we behave is determined by what happens within us, within the brain, and not by external factors. To be free doesn't mean that our behaviour is not determined by the laws of nature. It means that it is determined by the laws of nature acting in our brains."

- An interesting and I think an accurate description of the situation, in:

Carlo Rovelli (2015). Seven brief lessons on physics. (Afterword.) London: Penguin. ISBN 9780141981727.

Free will in the press

The clockwork universe

Article by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian newspaper (27 April 2021)

Apparently philosophers who have been arguing that there is no such thing as free will, that instead our lives and all existence is determined by prior events, have been getting death threats. Some people have been interpreting the claim that we don't really have a choice in what we do as a licence to do anything, because after all, they had no choice. This argument is an old one: some non-confirmist Christian belief systems such as groups called the Ranters (or at least some of them) and antinomianists, argued that if they were predestined to be saved by divine grace, as argued in Calvinism, there was no need to follow the Ten Commandments. (Let me know if I have this description wrong.)

It seems a strange argument, but I share these people's confusion, and despair. As the article notes, the philosopher Galen (great name) Strawson notes, "for these people it’s just an existential catastrophe". There's much that's very strange about free will, such as the idea we have something that we might not have, and that we don't have any choice about what we believe anyway.

Burkeman discusses illusionism: although free will is unreal, it is essential to our wellbeing that we carry on believing that it is real. Of course ultimately we have no choice in whether we can be illusionists or not because that's determined too. There's a strange doublethink in the article, with the assertion that there is no such thing as free will, but people talking as though there were; "if I were at graduate school again, maybe a different topic would have been preferable" (Saul Smilansky, philosopher professor).

It's a good article and summarises the issues clearly and succinctly.


The most interesting way of resolving the free will problem, the position that says free will is compatible with determinism.

Perhaps the most famous account was that of Davif Hume who argued that the problem arose because of confusion about the nature of causation. Human actions are caused by human choices, which is the same as free will. See:

See the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosphy entry on compatibilism for more detail.

Further papers

Brass, M., Furstenberg, A., & Mele, A. R. (2019). Why neuroscience does not disprove free will. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 102, 251–263.

Ng, Y.-K. (2021). Could artificial intelligence have consciousness? Some perspectives from neurology and parapsychology. AI & Society.

Does Beau have a choice about when he sleeps?

Sorting these sorts of things out makes me frustrated and then angry. Should I be blamed for being angry, or is it just my amygdala talking?