All Will is Free

The goal of this short essay is to argue the word ‘will’ and the phrase “free will” are equivalent. The ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant. All exercise of will is free. There is no “un-free will” although there are un-free actions that aren’t willed.

First let me set some boundaries. I am not trying to establish that free-will is real. This argument is about the ordinary language, conventionally subjective view of our agency. We seem to ourselves (and as self-as-such) to be final arbiters of some physical (bodily) behavior, even if the result is not exactly what was subjectively intended. If with my arm, hand, and fingers, I propel a basketball towards the hoop my goal, to make the ball go through the hoop, may not be what occurs. Nevertheless, it “seems to me” that I, the subjective agent, am the agent-cause of the throw. My agency caused my arm to move or at least this seems to be correct from most people’s viewpoint. My argument below does not hinge on whether libertarian free will is real, but only that it is possible.

We, as agents, seem to make choices. Our [seeming] choices often precede a controlled action (behavior) of our body, and it is those physical actions that are causes in the physical world. These acts are efforts to constrain future possibility to present fact. These causes are NOVEL in the sense that they have, at their beginning a selection by a subject and not merely firing a neuron. A “selection by a subject” is novel because it does not presuppose any prior physical determinant as would the mere firing of a neuron. We are not simply aware of a choice having-been-made. Subjectively it feels like we are the initiator of the choice. A choice resulting in an act of a body seems always entangled with a willing. I decide to order item #26 from the menu before me, and in making that choice I will my vocal apparatus to express it to the waiter. Some would say the vocalization is making the choice and this would be true from a third-party perspective. Subjectively however, we do usually seem to make a choice (decide) before willing an action.

This does not mean there were not physical causes (brain states) before and so impacting the choice or the willing. Nor does this mean there is anything about the experience of choosing and willing, without some brain-state correlate. What’s importantly characteristic of our experience here is that all the prior physical causes together are not sufficient, subjectively, to determine rigidly what is willed; the agent has the final vote, and this vote matters. At least this is what it feels like.

Not all actions of human or animal bodies are a result of willing. Heart beat and breathing come to mind, but there are less trivial examples, including many habitual behaviors and other actions that occur without our thinking about them. Such actions are not ‘novel’ in the sense that I mean that term. They are not sui generis because they are fully determined, that is sufficiently, by prior (neurological) physical causes. Importantly, we do not usually think of ourselves as willing such acts. We are surely not willing a muscle reflex and it does not often seem to us, when habitual behaviors are called to our attention, that we are willing them either.

In addition, even consciously willed acts, if they are free at all, are not free in any absolute sense. It is the body firstly that is the starting point of the physical causal chain initiated in the world. The act is always physical. Once a body acts (freely or otherwise), the causal chains started are beyond that body’s control. In addition acts themselves are constrained by the limits of what the body can do. Moreover, they are limited by what that body’s [seeming] subjective agency recognizes of its alternatives. We cannot do what the body cannot do (for example fly) and we cannot choose from among genuinely available alternatives (physically possible actions we might take) of which we are unaware.

Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009) makes a distinction between moral and metaphysical freedom. Metaphysical freedom refers to all the future possibilities that might contingently happen. Philosophers and physicists are used to the idea that the present physical universe is contingent meaning that what has happened might have happened otherwise. Many events might have happened in the universe that did not happen, and more importantly, many future events are possible and we cannot be sure which of these will occur. Metaphysical freedom in this sense has nothing directly to do with willful agency. In Rescher’s view it is genuine and we have access to it, but we have access merely because it is a property of the physical world with which we engage.

By contrast moral freedom comes down to a conscious agent being free to choose from contingent futures without a constraint (agent or otherwise) fixing the agent’s act (and so will) in some specific way. If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to open the safe I am not morally free in Rescher’s sense. But I am still metaphysically free. I could choose (and so act) to resist the gunman! I will get to the implications of Compatibilism for this argument shortly.

Animals appear to exercise will. Are they also free? I believe the answer is yes, though their freedom, their awareness of potential freedom is more constrained ours. Animals can do what they want in the absence of constraint. In this sense (absent constraint) they are morally free in Rescher’s technical sense. If metaphysical freedom is real, then animals must also be metaphysically free (ontologically speaking). A lioness on the hunt willfully selects between two possible zebras present to its awareness and so willfully acts to chase one of them. But the lioness cannot choose to forgo the hunt and become vegetarian even if there is plenty of nutritious vegetable matter in easy reach. Selecting one zebra and not the other is a freely-willed act, both morally and metaphysically, within the scope of lion consciousness.

Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will” 2013) argues that only a rare, deeply considered moral act, is genuinely free-willed. Everything else, despite how it might seem to us subjectively, is determined. Galen Strawson (“Free Will and Belief” 1986) argued that because so many of the past influences on our choices, beliefs, and so on, were not freely chosen, we are not free ever! Strawson’s argument is that unless every influence on a present decision was freely chosen, the present choice cannot be free at all! Strawson does nothing to address the phenomenological (the seeming) or linguistic issue here. He denies the possibility of metaphysical freedom by fiat. But both human language and experience easily distinguish between a seemingly free act and an act that does not seem to be free. Perhaps not always, but if we can make the distinction even sometimes, then metaphysical freedom might be real! If in a long chain of influences not freely chosen a single choice, however narrow, is freely elected then free will is possible.

Assuming Strawson (or Swinburne) is correct in what sense are all of these determined choices “willings” other than merely being a “figure of speech” that has no referrent? If our brain alone fixes what we do in what way are we, our subjective self, willing that act at all? To be sure what seems like the result of a willing might be an illusion. But in that case, not only are we not free, we are not really willing anything either.

This brings me to Compatibilism. If someone puts a gun to my head and orders me to open the safe I am acting unfreely by compatibilist lights, and yet I am obviously willing in the conventional linguistic sense. I must exercise will to move my arm and hand to the safe and dial the combination. According to compatibilists my will is not exercised freely. Here Rescher’s distinction between moral and metaphysical freedom is helpful. The gun to my head makes me morally unfree. Few would suggest that I have a moral duty to resist the gunman. Yet according to Rescher, I remain metaphysically free. I could resist the gunman, or try to escape. These are genuine options in that they are possible courses of action, future potentials not precluded by physics from which I might select. My willing my hand to dial the combination is still an exercise of metaphysical freedom.

‘Will’ and ‘free will’ do come apart in Compatibilism because compatibilists deny that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” exists at all. That is precisely the compatibilist’s point. By compatibilist lights, metaphysical freedom in Rescher’s sense is mere illusion. To all intents and purposes, at least as concerns macro-physics, events of universe history are not contingent but fully determined.

If compatibilists are right however, it makes little sense to speak of any willing going on either way. If there is a gun to my head, my brain, and not any willing makes me, my body, open the safe. If there is no gunman, my brain might determine that I finish up some work before going home. Either way, what seems to me to be a free-choice willing (I could leave the paperwork until the morning) is not real but merely a seeming. For compatibilists, there is no will at all, only the illusion of one. Put otherwise, there is no such phenomenon as “unfree will” because there is no real will at all!

If compatibilists are wrong and Rescher is right (it is metaphysically possible to resist the gunman) then any “act of will” is an act of “metaphysically free will” notwithstanding there are many past influences, not freely chosen, impinging it, or even that the choice was not morally free. If agents are metaphysically free, if subjective agents can choose between genuinely alternate futures then the subject, and not merely the brain, becomes a part of the causal chain resulting in a particular future out of many possible. If ‘will’ represents anything more than a figure of speech, metaphysical freedom has to be real.

Compatibilists speak of will as though it was real but by their own lights it cannot be. We seem to perform choice-act combinations by willing. If we don’t “will it” (and I grant that not all acts are willed or free) then nothing happens; no act will issue from a body. Importantly it also seems that no act of a body that is not willed is free; we are not free to suppress a reflex and we easily distinguish between willed and not-willed action under normal circumstances. If every free act is willed, and will is not an illusion, and no un-willed act is free, then no “act of will” can be entirely un-free (fully determined) and the ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant.

16 thoughts on “All Will is Free

  1. Your last sentence seem to contain a logical flaw. “If every free act is willed, and no unwilled act is free, then the ‘free’ in “free will” is redundant.” From those premises you can not deduce that all willed acts are free. Basically you are saying that all P are Q and that all non-Q are non-P, and that only implies that P is a subset of Q, there still can be Qs that are not P (willed acts that are not free).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just in case you are seeing these only as replies to your original comment. See the thread, but this after I modified the last paragraph…

      Check out the last paragraph now Clemente! Tell me what you think


  2. But what you take to be the first premise “every free act is willed” is established by the body of the paper it is not merely an assumption. I also conceded that in the compatibilist view, where metaphysical freedom is denied then yes there are willed acts that are not free. Nice to hear from you again!


  3. Yes Clemente, I mapped this out and you are correct, it leaves open the possibility of willing that is not free. Needs another premise like “no willed act is unfree” but that assumes that metaphysical freedom is real and not merely possible. Thinking about this…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi there, I’m Marvin. I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken with an actual Compatibilist before, but I’m one. I find some of the things you’ve read about me and say about me are way off the mark. And I should warn you at the outset that it is quite possible that none of the authors you have read knows me any better than you do. So, I’d like to set the record straight, and try to answer any questions you might have about how free will and determinism are compatible.

    First, the word “free” doesn’t mean anything until you implicitly or explicitly link it to some meaningful and relevant constraint. One is “free of” or “free from” something.

    And the word “will” refers to one’s specific intent for the immediate of distant future.

    Unlike our body’s autonomic functions, we often deliberately “choose” what we “will” do. We see several possible options or possibilities, then we imagine how things might turn out if we chose each of them, and based on this evaluation we decide what we “will” do.

    Free will is about who or what is actually choosing what we will do. If someone is holding a gun to our head and demanding that we open the safe, then he is choosing what we will do. As you point out, we could choose to die rather than comply, but, in most cases that would be less moral than choosing to cooperate (a life has higher moral value than the money in the safe).

    So, free will is when we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, “free” of coercion.

    And there are other extraordinary influences that effectively take control of our choosing, similar to coercion, such as severe mental illnesses that distort our view of reality, or impair our ability to reason, or compel us to act in ways that a normal mind would not choose to act.

    The operational definition of free will, which everyone understands and uses correctly in most practical scenarios, especially relating to moral or legal responsibility, is a decision we make for ourselves, free of coercion or other undue influence.

    Well, then, what about determinism? If we presume perfectly reliable cause and effect (and the argument is much simpler if we do), then it is a logical fact that every event that ever happens is causally necessary from any prior point in eternity, and inevitably must happen.

    Although it sounds rather ominous when we first hear it, it doesn’t actually change anything. Reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue. It’s just how everything operates. In fact, it’s how WE operate. We are a collection of biological processes that must operate fairly reliably if we are to continue to exist.

    And our brain is not some external entity controlling us. It IS us. All our mental processes are physical processes running upon the hardware of our neurology. The only thing “metaphysical”, if there is any such thing, would be the fact that it is not the brain itself but the series of state changes throughout the structure occurring at the speed of electro-chemical reaction that constitutes our mental processes. We know this because brain death occurs when the activity ceases. The brains still there, just like the computer is, but it is switched off.

    Our mental processes experience reality, and our imagination is a mental process that runs simulations of possibilities and estimates their outcomes if chosen. This is a form of symbolic algebra, where we manipulate concepts and model reality. Based upon these scenarios, we choose what we will do next.

    All of this processing, physical, biological, and rational, reliably brings about our choice. Just ask a guy, like George for example, “Why did you choose A instead of B?” And he will happily explain to you why, given what he wanted to accomplish, A was a much better choice than B. His choice is reliably caused by his own goals and his own reasoning. And there was no one holding a gun to his head, and he was not mentally ill or hypnotized or otherwise unduly influenced to choose B instead.

    So, the choice is reliably caused (determinism) and it is reliably caused by the physical object, living organism, and intelligent species we refer to as “George” (free will).

    There is no contradiction to be found between those two facts. Therefore, we must conclude that determinism and free will are compatible.

    You would have to go out of your way, or change the meaning of the words, to make them incompatible.

    Any questions?


    1. Hello Marvin.. Thank you for such a long and considered reply. I think in the end the difference between us is that in rejecting any seriously metaphysical issues here (you say “The only thing “metaphysical”, if there is any such thing … , series of state changes … constitutes our mental processes.” surely a rejection of metaphysical significance by fiat. And I do not believe “state changes” are metaphysical at all FWIW) you are simply forced into a position where you must find something to call “free will” for socially obvious pragmatic reasons (to ground judicial responsibility for example).

      Compatibilists are saying: look there really isn’t any real free will because brain states (and their physical antecedents going back ad infinitum) are all that is really going on and this derived from (to put it in Sean Carroll’s phrase) “mind can’t cause physics”. But compatibilists recognize that they need something to ground responsibility (for obvious reasons) so we’ll call it “acting in the absence of external (or internal brain disease) influence. It is significant I think that what is called ‘coercion’ (and you discuss it) is always potentially verifiable by 3rd parties. No third party event to verify (gun or disease), no coercion. Further we will insist that there is no such thing as “metaphysical free will” which leaves us with nothing else to call “free” about will other than lack of coercion.

      In my essay (there are two others of mine here on the same subject: “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”) I am arguing from the position that metaphysical freedom (in Rescher’s sense) is possible. But if that is the case then the only way a subjective-self, and not merely a brain (which does not ever select from genuine alternatives but only the next determined [perhaps even probabalistically] state) , can successfully WILL something is if mind CAN cause physics!

      Your short discussion of determinism is fully compatible with this conclusion. You said “All of this processing, physical, biological, and rational, reliably brings about our choice.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but if “mind cannot cause physics” then there is nothing, no work, for what you call “the rational” to do here. This is why I find Compatibilism to be such a problem. Even ignoring my views on the significance of metaphysics, the causal properties of non-material mind, and so on, Compatibilism struggles with a fundamental contradiction. What it calls “free will” has no substance to it, no reality, only a pragmatic value. It is merely a useful illusion. If compatibalists admitted that, if they said that, I would grant at least that the notion is coherent though I still believe it to be false..

      You asked if I had questions. I will read your essay on the subject. I am curious if there you perhaps mention a good book or two from others you take to be the masters of the viewpoint. Tell me a little about yourself. You seem to have some training… We can exchange email addresses if you like, but I will be in touch in reply to your essay…


      1. I was a teenager in the Richmond Public Library, browsing the philosophy books. I think it was one of Spinoza’s letters that spelled out how every event was causally inevitable. This bothered me. So I started thinking about how I could do something that was not causally inevitable. It occurred to me that if I were facing a decision between A and B, and found myself leaning heavily toward A, I would simply choose B instead to spite inevitability. Problem solved! But wait…my desire to spite inevitability had now made B the inevitable choice. So now, to accomplish my goal, I’d have to switch back to A again. But wait … it’s an endless loop.

        No matter which I chose, A or B, inevitability would switch to match my choice!

        So, who or what is controlling my choice, me or inevitability? Well, obviously, it’s me. And I imagined inevitability sitting in the corner and laughing, because the only way that it could affect my choice was by my own efforts to avoid it.

        I saw through the paradox at an early age. The fact that my choice was inevitable does not alter the fact that I am making the choice. The two facts are compatible.

        It was like the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and I was the innocent kid pointing out that he was naked.


      2. If I may respond to your remarks, THE compatibilist is saying that both determinism and free will are true. This assumes that we’re not using definitions that explicitly define determinism as the absence of free will, or defines free will as the absence of determinism. And that is basically what the incompatibilists are doing.

        Both the hard determinist and the libertarian, for example, redefine free will as “freedom from reliable causation” (or more explicitly as “freedom from causal necessity/inevitability”, which is logically derived from perfectly reliable cause and effect).

        But there is no such thing as “freedom from reliable causation”. Nor does anyone ever behave as if they believed such a thing were possible. Even if they believe in a God capable of performing miracles, they will still believe that such a God will act according to his own goals and his own reasoning. And they will appeal to God’s goals and reasoning through prayer, to attempt to cause him to perform a miracle on their behalf.

        Goals and reasons are rational causes of our own actions. And, although they exist only within our mental processing (which exists as physical processes running upon the hardware of our neurology), they end up marshaling our physiological resources to accomplish what we decide that we will do.

        Thoughts can cause actions. This is a matter of scientific fact. Both of the neuroscientists I’ve read, Michael Gazzaniga (“Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”) and Michael Graziano (“Consciousness and the Social Brain”) assert that there is both top-down as well as bottom-up causation in play in the brain.

        So, mind, which is a physical process, can most certainly cause physical actions. Mind itself is a physical process.

        Determinism asserts that every event is causally necessary. Free will makes the empirical distinction between an action that is deliberately chosen by a person’s own mind, versus an action imposed upon that person against his will by someone or something else.

        In all cases, whether it is a case of free will or a case of coercion, the action will (assuming perfectly reliable causation) be causally necessary from any prior point in eternity.

        But, because every event is always causally necessary from any prior point in eternity, the fact of causal necessity can make no empirical distinction between any two events. It is a logical fact without any meaningful or relevant implications. It is like a background constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, and it can be safely subtracted from both sides without affecting the result.


      3. If “every event is always casually necessary..” and in our case I take it you mean one brain state casually leading to the next, then you have determinism and no “metaphysical freedom” is possible.

        Of course physics can explain why a car stops at a red light by your view. If you follow brain states beginning with a photo receptor and brain states encoding the rules of driving and brain states encoding my present environment (I am not fleeing the police) you eventually get to a brain state that makes my foot press the brake. Nowhere in there do you find “the choice” or rather you cannot find at which point choice selected the next brainstate because that brainstate just looks like every other in the chain.

        Our disagreement is ontological. If you really believed that an agency that wasn’t merely a brain state (tho it too has a brain state correlate) selected the next brain state you wouldn’t need compatibilism because you’d have what you need to ground libertarian free will.

        So all this talk about freedom in the face of presupposing determinism is in the end a rationalization. No REAL freedom is or could be involved.


  5. Hello Marvin… For whatever reason, the wordpress app on my phone shows me your URL which brought me to your paper responding to the SEP article, but here on my desktop where I can type more conveniently no such links are shown. I have read your article and at least much of it, and what you say above are very much the same. We are too far apart to come together.

    The phrase “reliable cause” seems to mean nothing more than physical determinism, that is physics causing physics. You appear to equate the notion of libertarian free will with “unreliable cause” or “a-causal cause”, and I have no idea what those are. No libertarian on PoM that I have read (and I have read many) uses such a phrase. “Mental cause” (absent disease) is reliable and not a-causal. It just isn’t physical. Physicists recognize only two classes of cause in the universe, macro-physical deterministic, and quantum indeterministic. Both of these are “physical” which is fine. But I recognize a third sort of cause in the physical universe, one that is NOT physical albeit the only physics over which this cause has any effect is that of brain states. Not all brain states, but sometimes some of them.

    So when your example woman “chooses” between items on the menu, what I really mean is that some phenomenon that is dependent on but not merely her brain makes a choice that selects between two (of course over simplifying here) next-brain states neither of which are determined by the state preceding the choice. Of course the state selected must be COMPATIBLE with the prior state, that is it must be a state that “could have” arisen in the absence of mental intervention so it remains perfectly reliable. But when you say she makes a choice, what you really mean is that her brain moves from one state to the next in a physically determined way. Her intervention does no work, indeed is not an intervention at all, only the illusion of one. You simply move to declare the illusion all there really is to “free will”. I reject that move.

    All of this stems from other issues. You do not hesitate to declare “Mind itself is a physical process.” This is the central assumption setting up your view, but it is, in my opinion, wrong or more precisely, not complete. Mind does rest on brain, that is there are physical processes NECESSARY to produce it, but they are not SUFFICIENT. “Something is added” (to paraphrase Chalmers) to brain states to produce mind. Why? Because causal closure in the physical precludes any physics resulting in anything even arguably non-physical (see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). As you think it is obvious that mind simpliciter is a physical process I think it is just as obvious that it is not though certainly it would not exist without physics (necessary but not sufficient). You are arguing from a third-party perspective (all we can measure physically is brain states) while I am arguing from a first-party perspective. My mind can’t be weighed.

    Our view of what is “real in the universe” is so different that there is no common ground about this matter from which we can begin. You believe that there is nothing else but physics because physics can’t find anything else. I agree that physics can’t find anything else, but I reject your conclusion that therefore there is nothing else. There isn’t any middle ground between us on this fundamental issue.


    1. Physics cannot explain why a car stops at a red light. You will find the laws that govern traffic published at your department of motor vehicles, but you will not find them in any physics textbook.

      Inanimate objects passively obey the laws of physics. If you set a bowling ball on a slope, it will always roll downhill. But if you drop a squirrel on that same slope, he will go up, down, left, or right depending upon where he expects to find the next acorn. This is “purposeful” or “goal-directed” behavior.

      Living organisms come with a “biological will” or “drives” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Rather than just rolling down the slope, our squirrel is motivated to acquire what it needs to live. He is made of the same physical stuff, atoms and molecules, that make up our bowling ball, but they are organized differently. They are specifically organized as a living organisms. He does not respond passively to physical forces, but employs them for his own use. His claws hold him to the tree in part due to the gravity pulling him downward.

      So, there is both physical causation and biological causation.

      With intelligent species we get something new: the ability to imagine, evaluate, and choose what we will do. We get logic. We get possibilities. We get choices. And we get a freely chosen “I will”.

      There is no way to explain our car stopping at a red light with physics alone, without introducing the biological goal of survival and the rational judgment that stopping at the red light helps us achieve that goal.

      Now, you apparently wish to assert some non-material entity separate from physical matter which can do the choosing. Okay. But that does not escape determinism.

      We may assume perfectly reliable cause and effect at both the biological level of causation and the rational level of causation. Setting physics aside, what is it that causes you to choose to stop at the red light rather than drive right through it?


  6. Atal, you say that “If you follow brain states beginning with a photo receptor and brain states encoding the rules of driving and brain states encoding my present environment (I am not fleeing the police) you eventually get to a brain state that makes my foot press the brake. Nowhere in there do you find “the choice” or rather you cannot find at which point choice selected the next brainstate because that brainstate just looks like every other in the chain.”

    I would disagree. If you let the movie run, brainstate to brainstate, you will observe the choosing happening. But you will never see it by examining just one frame.

    The movie running is modeling the most relevant internal and external events as well as modeling itself being aware of those events. (Graziano’s theory of conscious awareness).

    The brain models the self, the car, the traffic light, and the rules of the road in order to causally determine what the body will do next (press the brake if red, press the gas if green).

    There is no other object in the physical universe that is performing this operation other than the person driving the car. The “person” is the same “thing” as the process running on the hardware of the brain. So, whatever that process chooses, the person has chosen. Or as Eagleman says in his PBS series, “The Brain”, you ARE your brain.

    If another person were holding a gun to his head, telling him where to go, then that brain’s processing would be controlling and choosing what happens next.

    But if the driver is free to drive the car where he chooses, then he is “free of” coercion or other undue influence, and at “liberty” to choose for himself where he “will” go next. Thus, it is a freely chosen “I will go left” or “I will go right” or “I will go straight ahead”.


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