Is Free Will an Illusion? An Argument in Favor of the Possibility of Free Will

A recent article published in The Atlantic ( presents the case against free will-the idea that what we think of as self-determination is merely an illusion.  This is a point of view that the article claims is becoming more and more accepted. It presents the case for hereditary factors alone as determinative of our behavior, but, to my mind, doesn’t make a very convincing case. Perhaps the strongest argument it contains that free will is merely an illusion starts with the reductionist view that all our thoughts have a neurological (electrical) component. The argument that follows is, then, that if you somehow had all possible knowledge of all parts of a person’s brain and mental states it would be possible to predict what they might do or say next.

This seems like a very sophisticated (and vastly complicated) way of viewing the mind in the same way as you might view the possibility of predicting the trajectory or a cannonball. But the better model for comparison in this case would be a machine-a machine such as a computer. The behavior of computers can be predicted in principle. Moreover, because computers function strictly according to their programming and circuitry, free will seems impossible for them-as it would for us, were our minds the same as a computer in all respects. But the important question is whether consciousness would add something to the operation of the machine that can’t be reduced to simple stimulus and response-crucially, something that doesn’t come from without-from the environment-but something determined from within.


If a robot could be created to respond in multiple different ways to a single stimulus according to whatever is most advantageous, we would have something very much like a robot with “free will” so long as it also possessed self-awareness-something that might prove either difficult or impossible. With the ability to respond with any number of random responses according to perceived advantage it would be able to generate a response not automatically determined by environmental factors (or stimuli). In this case, its response would be unpredictable and would come from within. If such a machine were possible, then, in principle at least, it would have free will.  It would follow that free will is not merely an illusion, and, at the same time, something we could understand.

Finally, randomness as part of the machine’s set of possible responses provides some insight into our own sense of freedom.  Our own responses to external stimuli could be said to be programmed to various degrees, but the possibility of randomness in our behavior (doing something irrational, out of the box, creative) would undermine any final attempt to completely program our behavior.  In the case of the machine above, randomness could be introduced mathematically (the digits of pi are an example) so that any future response would be non-predictable.  The possibility of randomness would defeat the argument that our behavior could be seen as completely determined (something that the anti-free will argument requires to make its case).  The machine could be programmed to respond with either a standard or a random response (it could “decide” to show “Free Willy” at any moment.  Just as the machine has these two kinds of responses, programmed and non-programmed, so do we.  If we had only programmed responses, our “will” could not possibly be free.  From this perspective it can be seen than it is randomness in our own behavior that makes our own freedom possible and helps make sense of it.  It is through our irrationality and creativity that our freedom is affirmed.

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