17 4.2 Do We Act Freely?

As we saw in our Mind and Body topic, Descartes’s dualism cannot explain interactions between the mind and the body, neither ordinary acts of will that create physical movements of the body, nor states of the body that produce mental effects.

Materialism, on the other hand, considers both mind and body as physical “substance” and can, thereby, account for mind-body interactions. The laws of cause and effect apply to the physical world, and causality explains the interactions between our physical bodies and our mental lives. So, then we must ask:

If, according to the laws of causality, every action is caused by a prior event, does a person exercise free choice, or is every decision the effect of a prior event/cause?

A primary reason for concern over this question relates to moral responsibility. If we cannot make free choices, how can we be held accountable for our actions? We will consider moral actions in depth in the next module, on Ethics. For now, keep in mind that there is a lot stake as we look at the issue of free will.

Determinism is the view that all things are determined by antecedent (prior) conditions. Everything physical is bound by the laws of cause and effect. Every event, including human actions, is brought about by previous events in accordance with universal causal laws that govern the world. It is important to keep in mind that determinism is not the same as “predictability.” The events of the universe are too vast for rationally predicting a necessary and inevitable future based on past events.

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) explores the distinction between determinism and predictability.

Indeterminism holds that some events, including human actions, are not necessarily determined by previous events in accordance with universal causal laws. Some indeterminist theories assert the possibility of free will. There are also indeterminist theories related to other disciplines with metaphysical import, for example, in physics with regard to the behavior of micro-particles.

Libertarianism is an indeterminist theory about the possibility of free will. Libertarianism is the view that humans do have free will and make genuinely free choices, and that when humans make a choice, they could have chosen alternatively. (If you are a libertarian, then are you are an indeterminist; but if you are an indeterminist, you are not necessarily a libertarian.)

Compatibilism is the view that determinism does not rule out what is meant by free will, even though determinism is real and all events are caused. In general, compatibilists assert that we can consider human actions free in that they are internally and consciously motivated by our desires, rather than caused by external influences or constraints. Individual compatibilist philosophers have distinct expressions of their conceptions of “freely chosen” actions. We will examine one compatibilist philosopher later in this topic.

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) explore the general issue of the possibility of free will’s compatibility with causal determinism.

4.2.1 D’Holbach’s Case for Determinism

Paul Henri Thiery, Baron D’Holbach (1723 – 1789), a French-German philosopher and encyclopedist, was a prominent figure in the French Enlightenment, noted for his passionate materialism, atheism, and writings critical of religion. The excerpts cited below are from his work ,The System of Nature (1770), Volume 1, “CHAP. XI. Of the system of man’s free-agency.”

D’Holbach, as an empiricist and a materialist, readily acknowledges that events in the physical world, which includes the biological world, are necessarily governed by the laws of cause and effect.

It has been already sufficiently proved, that the soul is nothing more than the body, considered relatively to some of its functions, more concealed than others: it has been shewn, that this soul, even when it shall be supposed immaterial, is continually modified conjointly with the body; is submitted to all its motion; that without this it would remain inert and dead: that, consequently, it is subjected to the influence of those material, to the operation those physical causes, which give impulse to the body; of which the mode of existence, whether habitual or transitory, depends upon the material elements by which it is surrounded; that form its texture; that constitute its temperament; that enter into it by the means of the aliments; that penetrate it by their subtility; the faculties which are called intellectual, and those qualities which are styled moral, have been explained in a manner purely physical; entirely natural: in the last place, it has been demonstrated, that all the ideas, all the systems, all the affections, all the opinions, whether true or false, which man forms to himself, are to be attributed to his physical powers; are to be ascribed to his material senses.

Humans, as part of the biological world, are subject to the laws of cause and effect.

Thus man is a being purely physical; in whatever manner he is considered, he is connected to universal Nature: submitted to the necessary, to the immutable laws that she imposes on all the beings she contains, according to their peculiar essences; conformable to the respective properties with which, without consulting them, she endows each particular species.

Humans are incapable of acting as free agents, it would be unnatural, and impossible. Humans cannot be both part of nature and outside of nature.

As a part, subordinate to the great whole, man is obliged to experience its influence. To be a free agent it were needful that each individual was of greater strength than the entire of Nature; or, that he was out of this Nature: who, always in action herself, obliges all the beings she embraces, to act, and to concur to her general motion…. In short, man would be an unnatural being; totally incapable of acting in the manner we behold.

The biological explanation for what we consider to be “the will” is brain activity, reacting to experience. In effect we are products of our experiences, we remember and act accordingly.

The will, as we have elsewhere said, is a modification of the brain, by which it is disposed to action or prepared to give play to the organs. This will is necessarily determined by the qualities, good or bad, agreeable or painful, of the object or the motive that acts upon his senses; or of which the idea remains with him, and is resuscitated by his memory. In consequence, he acts necessarily; his action is the result of the impulse he receives either from the motive, from the object, or from the idea, which has modified his brain, or disposed his will.

Novel (unexpected) “dispositions of the will” should not be mistaken for “free” actions; instead they are explained by new causative experiences. Such experiences include exposure to new ideas. Still it is the brain that is modified which in turn effects the new disposition.

When he does not act according to this impulse, it is because there comes some new cause, some new motive, some new idea, which modifies his brain in a different manner, gives him a new impulse, determines his will in another way; by which the action of the former impulse is suspended: thus, the sight of an agreeable object, or its idea, determines his will to set him in action to procure it; but if a new object or a new idea more powerfully attracts him, it gives a new direction to his will, annihilates the effect of the former, and prevents the action by which it was to be procured.

Deliberation (appearing to be making a considered “free” choice) is merely a case of delayed effect when an experience brings confusion.

Man is said to deliberate when the action of the will is suspended; this happens when two opposite motives act alternately upon him. To deliberate, is to hate and to love in succession; it is to be alternately attracted and repelled; it is to be moved sometimes by one motive, sometimes by another. Man only deliberates when he does not distinctly understand the quality of the objects from which he receives impulse, or when experience has not sufficiently apprised him of the effects, more or less remote, which his actions will produce….When the soul is assailed by two motives that act alternately upon it, or modify it successively, it deliberates; the brain is in a sort of equilibrium, accompanied with perpetual oscillations, sometimes towards one object, sometimes towards the other, until the most forcible carries the point, and thereby extricates it, from this state of suspense, in which consists the indecision of his will.

Choice is an illusion. Deliberation preceding choice is only delay of a necessary effect, and the necessary choice is one that has “direct advantage.”

Choice by no means proves the free-agency of man; he only deliberates when he does not yet know which to choose of the many objects that move him, he is then in an embarrassment, which does not terminate, until his will as decided by the greater advantage he believes be shall find in the object he chooses, or the action he undertakes. From whence it may be seen that choice is necessary, because he would not determine for an object, or for an action, if he did not believe that he should find in it some direct advantage.

Humans may live and act as though they are making free choices, they may think they are “free” because they just don’t understand the complexity of the cause-and-effect web of experience that controls them.

It is the great complication of motion in man, it is the variety of his action, it is the multiplicity of causes that move him, whether simultaneously or in continual succession, that persuades him he is a free agent: if all his motions were simple, if the causes that move him did not confound themselves with each other, if they were distinct, if his machine was less complicated, he would perceive that all his actions were necessary, because he would be enabled to recur instantly to the cause that made him act.

The causal web that necessitates human action includes not only experiences but also innate biological nature.

When it is said, that man is not a free agent, it is not pretended to compare him to a body moved by a simple impulsive cause: he contains within himself causes inherent to his existence; he is moved by an interior organ, which has its own peculiar laws; which is itself necessarily determined, in consequence of ideas formed from perceptions, resulting from sensations, which it receives from exterior objects.

D’Holbach Summary

D’Holbach thought humans to be ordinary members of the biological natural world, subject to nature’s laws of cause and effect. Even it we act as if we are free and really want it to be true, that does not make it actually true. We are wholly the products of the experiences we encounter and the natural processes of our biological composition.

4.2.2 James’s Case for Indeterminism

The American philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) had several areas of interest, and expertise. In his work in psychology, he saw the self/person as a continuous “stream of consciousness” capable of exercising free will. As a religious scholar, he thought religious practice to be firmly grounded in rationally chosen beliefs that lie beyond the scope of reason or evidence. In the The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy James presents his position for free will and against determinism.

For James, in matters of choice, the availability of two (or more) options is essential and must have these further qualities:

  1. Each option must hold some minimal degree of viability in terms of appealing to your belief system.
  2. The choice among them is not avoidable, cannot be circumvented; some course of action is inevitable.
  3. The outcome is momentous, not trivial, in the sense that the alternatives have significance for one’s life.

James argued that it is appropriate to resolve such cases on non-rational grounds, as a matter of choice, passion, or volition. In the initial essay, “The Will to Believe,” he wrote:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this: Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth. The thesis thus abstractly expressed will, I trust, soon become quite clear.

He continued in the essay “The Dilemma of Determinism;”

A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free-will controversy, and that no new champion can do more than warm up stale arguments which every one has heard. This is a radical mistake. I know of no subject less worn out, or in which inventive genius has a better chance of breaking open new ground,—not, perhaps, of forcing a conclusion or of coercing assent, but of deepening our sense of what the issue between the two parties really is, of what the ideas of fate and of free-will imply…..I thus disclaim openly on the threshold all pretension to prove to you that the freedom of the will is true. The most I hope is to induce some of you to follow my own example in assuming it true, and acting as if it were true. If it be true, it seems to me that this is involved in the strict logic of the case. Its truth ought not to be forced willy-nilly down our indifferent throats. It ought to be freely espoused by men who can equally well turn their backs upon it. In other words, our first act of freedom, if we are free, ought in all inward propriety to be to affirm that we are free.

The initial and foundational choice that one can make is to affirm that we are free! James goes on to make an impassioned argument against determinism. He points out that determinism offers only one possible future, the one determined by the past and present. Given that there are only two possibilities, that the world is determined or that the world is undetermined, we must use the information that we have to decide which to believe. Since we do not have sufficient facts either way, we must chose which theory to believe based on our lived experience. Since we live as if (and feel as if) we are free, James says that an undetermined universe is more rational.

Given that often we do not have sufficient information to know if an action was determined or undetermined, James points out that perspective of determinism leaves unappealing and impractical options for leading a life worth living. He uses the “judgment of regret” (“Hardly an hour passes in which we do not wish that something might be otherwise”) to illustrate how a determinist viewpoint minimizes both the significance of evil and our reactions to it. In a determined world, our options are:

  • pessimism, by accepting the evil as necessary,
  • an irrational optimism that all is for the best, or
  • that our perceptions of actions as evil are only subjective assessments.

James argues that to make life worth living, it is more practical as well as more rational to reject determinism.

James Summary

William James was the type of indeterminist referred to as a libertarian; he believed that humans make free choices, that they have free will, and when human beings make a choice they could have done otherwise. In his view, the fact that most people live their lives as if they are making free choices is strong evidence that we do have free will. Faced with the choice between regarding the world as either determined or undetermined, James thought indeterminism a more rational choice, since we live as if this were so.

A supplemental resource (bottom of page) describes James’s position on human freedom.


Consider the two positions we have studied at this point, D’Holbach’s determinism and James’ libertarian rejection of determinism. Do you think James’s reasons for rejecting determinism are convincing? Explain your response.

Note: Post your response to the appropriate Discussion topic.

4.2.3 Dennett’s Case for Compatibilism

Generally speaking, compatibilists acknowledge that determinism and causality are real and that all events are caused, but they do not rule out free will. Compatibilists see freely taken actions as those that are prompted (“caused”) from within and represent our desires for what we really want to do. Powers outside our consciousness do not force choices that are made freely. Individual compatibilist philosophers have particular ways of describing both what they mean by “free will” and what kinds of external and internal factors may inspire or constrain free choices.

Daniel Dennett (1942 – ) is an American philosopher and cognitive scientist who focuses on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of biology, with special interest in evolutionary biology. As a materialist, he regards the human mind as simply the workings of a complex brain.

Dennett’s compatibilism has an evolutionary perspective. In his book Freedom Evolves(2003), he argues just as other physical and genetic attributes are products of evolution by natural selection, so are aspects of culture such as freedom and morality. Human free will has advanced as part of the evolution of human consciousness and works the way we want free will to work, by making life worth living.

Dennett, a scientist as well as a philosopher, is committed to determinism and the laws of causality. He agrees that we do not have free will in the metaphysical sense of an immaterial soul that is not subject to causation. Bur that does not mean we have no free will at all. We have evolved to hold each other responsible for actions and choices, without the need for free will in a metaphysical sense. Dennett claims his conception of free will is worthwhile because it functions the way we want free will to function: it provides meaning that makes life worth living and accounts for moral responsibility. (Recall the brief discussion of “functionalism” – defining something in terms of what it “does,” rather than what it “is”!)

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) are available in which Dennett explains his version of compatibilism.

Before We Leave….

William James and Daniel Dennett approach the question of free will from very different perspectives. James rejects the idea of a determined world, believes we do make free choices, and he opts for indeterminism. As a scientist, Dennett is committed to a deterministic world and rejects the idea of free will in its metaphysical sense. Yet both argue that a conception of free will is necessary to make life worth living and hold humans accountable for their actions. Accepting this view that there is good reason to believe humans capable of making choices, we move to the next module on Ethics, where a central question concerns theories on how we do, in fact, make moral choices.


Do you believe that free will is an illusion (that every choice could not be otherwise), or do you believe humans are capable of choosing freely? Explain your answer. (100-150 words)

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

Complete the Unit Test by the date on the Schedule of Work.

Supplemental Resources

Determinism and Predictability

Metaphysics: The Problem of Free Will This video looks at determinism and predictability. At a personal level, predictability could constrain our freedom. This short (under-8-minutes) video is optional but relevant and absorbing.

Free Will

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) Free Will Read: Sections 3a, “The Thesis of Causal Determinism”; 3b, “Determinism, Science and “”Near Determinism'”; and the first two paragraphs of 3c, “Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Pessimism”


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) William James Read Section 6,a, Human Freedom.


Daniel Dennett – What is Free Will? A 6-minute interview discussing Dennett’s conception of free will in a deterministic world.

Dennett on free will and determinism A 10-minute interview regarding Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves.

Daniel Dennett: Stop Telling People They Don’t Have Free Will Dennett explains why our conception of free will and believing that we have it are essential for a moral universe.

Overall Consideration: Determinism and Free Will. These videos are informative and humorous.

Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24 Determinism and libertarianism explained. (10 minutes)

Compatibilism: Crash Course Philosophy #25 Compatibilism explained. (9 minutes)


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