Free Will Essay

As commonly understood, free will is the capacity of rational human beings to choose a course of action from among a variety of alternatives. The opposite of free will is determinism whereby claims are made that any action “chosen” could not have been otherwise given the chain of events leading to it and the nature of the choosing agent. Free will and determinism are both embraced and disdained by social scientists depending on the semantic issue of how those terms are defined. Some support the “hard” determinism of B. F. Skinner, who insisted that individuals don’t have free will but keep pretending that they do, and others support the libertarian version of free will championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, who insisted that people have free will but keep pretending that they don’t. There are many intermediary positions, including the belief that free will and determinism are absolutely incompatible, and the contrary position that they are completely compatible.

The Enlightenment founders of criminology held that free will enabled humans to purposely and deliberately calculate a course of action that they were free to follow absent external restraints, and that if people choose to engage in illegal activities society has a perfectly legitimate right to punish them. The act of holding criminals responsible for their actions affirms their humanity by treating them as free agents rather than mindless automatons blown hither and thither by capricious circumstances. This classical assumption of rational free-willed individuals underlies all modern legal systems.

The notion of libertarian free will originated with the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who based it on Democritus’s atomic theory within which the “swerve” of an atom can occur without cause. Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty (unpredictability) is invoked by modern free will libertarians as affirming the unfettered freedom of the will. This is the kind of unpredictability that Max Weber called the privilege of the insane (the random, unstructured firing of neurons is one of the defining features of schizophrenia). If free will means action without a cause, all actions would be unpredictable and chaos would reign, and the apparent indeterminacy of quantum phenomena is hardly relevant to human actions.

Judging by the content of their textbooks and journals, most social scientists are determinist. Yet, at the same time they often rail against it. They are not against determinism in general, but rather against “biological determinism”; environmental determinism appears to be acceptable. Biological determinism implies that human behavior is a direct outcome of genetic programming absent any influence from the environment, but geneticist are well aware that genes are in constant dialogue with their environments, with the needs of the organism, and with other genes. They are well aware that without an environment, genes have no place to go because they depend on the environment for their expression.

There are philosophers and scientists who, ironically, see genes as the foundation of free will. This position is seen in terms of free will being the evolving freedom to follow the inclinations of individuals’ reason-guided natures. Genes are not puppet masters moving people unerringly to do their bidding; rather they are at people’s beck and call. Genes are constantly responding to individual needs by making the hormones, neurotransmitter, and cell-structure proteins needed by people to meet the many challenges of their environments. If genes incline humans in one direction rather than another, the nudge is internal, not caused by something wholly outside of their beings. After all, people’s genes are their genes.

Some criminology theories such as rational choice and age-graded life course theories are compatibilist in that they deny neither free will nor determinism. These theories assume rational free-willed individuals, but also that rationality and free will are bounded by each individual’s temperament, upbringing, knowledge, conscience, physical and cognitive abilities and disabilities, and the size of their bank account, as well as the formal and informal constraints imposed by others. Free will or agency within the meaning of these theories means that people are free to make choices within the confines of these constraints. Compatibilism is consistent with the notion expressed by Aristotle that one is free to wish what one wants, but not free to want what they wish. In other words, people are free to wish for that which is compatible with their nature, a nature that is the product of a configuration of their genes and developmental history. People are not free to wish for wants that run contrary to their natures. An introverted, fearful man, for instance, may wish for a career in accounting or computer science, but never for a career in the police or the marines. In this view, even if people have two options congenial to their natures, they will follow the strongest inclination.

For some, this is determinism pure and simple; for others it is determinism fully compatible with free will. An individual’s strongest inclination is his or her strongest inclination, and no one else’s. One is one’s nature, and a person’s will is his or her own; therefore, if people follow the direction in which their natures nudge them, they are following their own will. To ask for freedom beyond that is meaningless; how can one be free of one’s nature?

A hard determinist might respond that animals also engage in goal-directed behavior dictated by their natures, and no one invests them with free will. A compatibilist reply is that animals are instinctively driven to pursue their goals and do not form reasoned judgments regarding whether or not to respond to a natural urge. In other words, humans take ownership of their natural urges and control them via their ability to weigh the pros and cons of possible future outcomes for responding or not responding to their immediate urges.

It might well be that determinism is necessary for human agency. If people did not think that the things they do produce (determine) meaningful consequences, why would they do anything? One knows that one is a free agent and that living according to that position is necessary, for without a belief in agency—the ability to shape one’s own world—human beings would be imprisoned by a deadly que sera, sera fatalism that would destroy the ability to act for the greater good.

Although compatibilism is the stance held by most philosophers today, others see it as unwarranted fence-sitting that relieves its adherents of taking a firm stand. Yet there is adequate evidence from science that certain things formerly seen as contradictory turn out not to be. Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity, that is, the wave-particle dual nature of light, is perhaps the most famous example. There was a great deal of initial resistance to this counterintuitive wave-particle duality, but as it became more and more empirically endorsed it led to modern quantum theory. It turned out that neither the wave nor particle models alone could explain light, but together they could. If one substitutes human action for light, and free will and determinism for waves and particles, one can also conclude that neither free will nor determinism alone is sufficient to understand human action; both are needed to do so. Just as there is no longer any paradox in the wave-particle duality of light in physics, there should be no paradox about humans being both agenic and determined. Determinism gives people the only kind of free will worth having. It is a free will that follows the reasoned dictates of their natures (albeit, natures “caused” by the interaction of genetic inheritance and developmental experiences) and lays on individuals the responsibility of owning their actions.

Hard determinism challenges the very foundations upon which civilization rests, and libertarian free will is deemed impossibly incoherent by most philosophers. What is thus left is compatibilism, a position the law itself holds. The law holds people responsible for their conduct, and at the same time allows circumstances that mitigate their responsibility. It commands people to behave responsibly, which implies the assumption of free will to do so, and it is deterministic in that it assumes that punishment or the threat of punishment is effective in determining the extent to which people will behave responsibly.

According to neuroscientist Bjorn Brembs, free will is quantitative (how much free will do individuals have?) rather than qualitative (people either have free will or they don’t). Conceptualizing free will as a quantitative thing, it is logical to think that most individuals tend to become freer as they become more self-assured by the sum of life experiences and bank accounts. Becoming increasingly freer of external constraints as people move from childhood to old age means being able to live progressively more in accordance with their natural proclivities leavened by the wisdom of age. Behavioral genetic studies consistently find that as people age the influences of shared environments (environments in which individuals are under the considerable control of others) on personalities and cognitive abilities fade to almost nothing, while the influence of genes and non-shared environments become stronger. The wise old adage, “The older I get, the more I become myself,” sums up this quantitative/developmental argument for free will.


  1. Balaguer, Mark. Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
  2. Brembs, Bjorn. “Toward a Scientific Concept of Free Will as a Biological Trait: Spontaneous Actions and Decision-Making in Invertebrates.” Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, v.278 (2011).
  3. Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.
  4. Kane, Robert. A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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