The Problem of Free Will

Guest post by Sofia Andrewski:

How can free will exist in a deterministic universe? This problem haunts scientists and philosophers alike. My argument is that the universe determines the capacity for free will. Here is the argument:

1.The nature of the universe is determined by what happened during the Big Bang.

2. Humans have a brain constructed by this nature.

3. This brain (or mind) has free will—it can resist impulses.

4. Thus the nature of the universe determined the capacity for free will.

In order to understand exactly what I mean by this argument, it requires a few definitions. By “nature”, I mean the course of events as determined by physical laws. That is, the “nature of the universe” is simply what makes it the way it is, i.e. governed by events constrained by physical laws. This same nature is responsible for triggering the conditions that gave rise to the human brain.

By “determined” I mean the pattern in which events have played out. Certain events unravelled so that the human brain developed, but I am not suggesting that the rise of human life was set in stone, or necessary. It happened because certain things played out in a certain way, due to cause and effect, though the way things unravel in the present is more about probabilities than cause. When I talk about classical determinism, I refer to the stronger claim that each event causes the next in a forward direction, including human thoughts and actions to such an extent that probabilities are more or less ignored.

“Free will” refers to the ability of conscious entities to make decisions that are their own; that is, they could have made a different decision. This definition is close to one that the justice system presupposes; we are morally responsible for our actions because we are free to decide not to do something.

I say the brain is free as it can resist impulses, postulating this ability as being a part of decision making—as I will argue later there are often several causal chains influencing us when we make decisions, and we must resist on of these chains in order to favour another. I will also argue that we resist these impulses via the utilisation of our thought processes, and that individual thoughts have freedom, even if nature determines the capacity of thinking itself.

Additionally, I am assuming the brain and mind to refer to the same entity. Whether consciousness is entirely autonomous from the brain doesn't really matter for this argument; my point is to show even a die-hard materialist that we can have free thoughts and free will.

Can we resist or is our resistance determined?

When I decide not to eat a whole packet of biscuits, I feel I have done something praiseworthy; I resisted my physical impulses, my stomach growling did not trigger me to eat something unhealthy. In my mind, I believe I made a free decision. I fought my desires and rose above my physical nature.

No, says the determinist; I merely had the illusion of free will. The particular way our genetics and environment constructed our brain, such as social conditioning, education, even our basic human psychology, governs our thoughts and actions.  The agent has no space to wriggle away from those pressures; these factors make up who we are, and who we are determines the decisions we will make.

Despite this, we certainly do appear to make a decision. It is an odd thought that we may struggle in making any decision if we simply slid into one because of our makeup. There is a conflict going on, and the agent, being a conscious entity, is aware of this conflict. Our social conditioning, for example, does not always match our personalities or even our desires.

Therefore, outside factors do not always make up who we are, but they do exert some pressure upon us. Yet, we often decide to go against our nature and conform to external pressures. For example, an innately violent person may resist punching someone he dislikes because society tells him that is inappropriate. One could argue who we are does not always determine our decisions. Even if he submits to one impulse instead of another, the agent must still follow through with the decision and enact it. Thoughts themselves do not produce actions but precursors. A certain surrender to the decision is required, and suggests some kind of resistance is possible.

Why we can resist determined events

When various possibilities present themselves to an agent, vying for fulfilment, more than one chain of determined events occur at once, e.g. a physical impulse to steal due to hunger, and the social belief that stealing from others is wrong, a belief formed from childhood. It may be that both causal chains are equally strong; the person in this unfortunate scenario may be devoutly religious, but also extremely hungry.

There is a “probability haze”. The two options—steal or don't steal—fluctuate. The agent must enact one of the probabilities. He must use his thoughts—his conscious processes—to allow one event to happen, because the universe demands consistency; the agent cannot steal and not steal at the same moment. He can only decide by arguing with himself, by thinking.

To freely resist one impulse it now seems he must be able to think freely—if his individual thoughts are all determined by cause and effect external to his own consciousness then he cannot think freely and make a free decision.

One could argue in this scenario, that if the man avoided thinking and immediately stole the food he needed, then because he did not think, he did not make a free decision. However, this assumes thoughts cannot be subconscious. He still used free will; at some level of consciousness, he declined the chance to bring his morality into the discussion. He decided to simply follow his desires. Many split decisions involve a shallow choice, but there is still a conscious process running in the background.

Are thoughts free?

Suppose that every event from the Big Bang onwards led this agent to this moment. The man desires food, but stealing it is wrong. The chain of cause and effect leading him here determined every thought he has regarding the situation. These same causal chains trigger his brain state. Cause and effect determines his thoughts, rising from this brain state. Presuming his thoughts are logical, each thought causes the next, and as the brain causes them, a determined thought-chain results.

However, this kind of determinism feels more like pre-determinism; everything is set in stone. The argument assumes only one causal chain, only one possible future. It also assumes that the content of thoughts depend on a brain state alone. While it may be the case that his brain state causes thoughts about his situation, how he thinks about it and why he thinks about certain concerns depends on a variety of influences, as we discussed earlier.

To say an influence is the same as a cause is a strong claim. The influence is perhaps caused by past events, but it is not necessarily itself a cause. Still, once the thought process is complete, we would say, “Oh his religious upbringing made him go hungry.” Yet we could have said, “Oh, he was religious, but his hunger was too extreme for him to bear so he stole that loaf of bread.”

An influence is more a hypothetical determination than a categorical cause. By this, I mean it denotes a possibility, rather than inevitably causing an outcome.

The influence, or hypothetical determination, can be part of a causal chain, but still allow the possibility of resisting. I believe what we commonly refer to as a cause, when we look back on a mental chain of events is actually a hypothetical influence. The selection between these influences, and enacting the decision, slots one causal chain into the present, and forms part of a future influence. It is in the present moment that the agent is free to make the decision; only then does the winning causal chain become apparent—retrospectively.

This is what I call Retro-Hypothetic Determination (RHD).

RHD and Free Will

Because RHD assumes that mental causal chains arise from the present moment and only seem determined when viewed retrospectively, it allows the agent free will—the agent collapses probabilities into a single event (which can then be traced back in time). This takes place purely in the present moment; as the agent acts, future possibilities collapse into the moment of actualised decision—into the Now moment—and only then can a single chain be found in the past.

A strength of this view is that it does not require a linear conception of time. In normal determinism, we have: A → B. With RHD however, we also have B → A, allowing us to say, “He decided to starve (A) because his religion condemned theft (B) even though he was hungry.” This preserves Free will, because we can move from the decision back in time, making sense of it, yet preserving autonomy.

Determinism prefers “His religious upbringing (A) caused him not to steal (B) so he starved.” This seems too simplistic. RHD can work in the same forward direction, after the agent enacts the decision however. It would say, “His religious upbringing (A) influenced (hypothetically determined) his decision not to steal (B).” It did not categorically cause this decision however, as there were other influences, or other probability chains influencing him. If he'd chosen differently, we would've said, “His extreme hunger (A) influenced (hypothetically determined) his decision to steal the bread (B) despite his upbringing.”

Yes, classical determinism says his hunger caused him to steal, but RHD does not exclude other possibilities being present at the moment of decision, whereas classical determinism does.

Can Hypothetical Determinism cause a thought?

We have already established that thoughts are subject to influences triggered by causal chains. It is intuitive to suppose that physical nature has promoted the situations leading to such influences, but that the thoughts that arise are self-influenced, by the conscious mind, in the present moment. That is, the brain is forced to determine a course of action, birthing thoughts in the mind (a qualitative state of the brain) by the need of the brain. This original urgent thought “I need to decide” may be caused, but the thoughts surrounding the decision are responsive to multiple influences, so the content of deliberative thoughts can escape being pinned down by any one causal chain. This process decides the future in the moment the agent acts, this intent causes one probability to take hold, but these self-enabled thoughts cause this.

Thus, even if a chain of events or physical laws causes my Self, my actual deliberative thoughts are something I caused. This “I” could be the qualitative state of the brain, or consciousness as separate from the brain.

Even if these laws caused me to make a decision, I still caused the various thoughts about the conflicting possibilities and selected one critically, one that suited my preferences or needs with these free thoughts. They are free because they are not categorically determined by one particular causal chain.

The fact that my needs and preferences are also determined or at least influenced by my physical self or possibilities (via physical laws) and social pressures does not detract from this. I manage to weigh up what is best for me. I choose the cards to play, though I can't chose the cards I'm given.

As the nature of the universe is such that events played out in this way—i.e. allowing me this small freedom— the universe has determined free will, in the sense that it has caused the capacity for free will to rise in some conscious beings, e.g. humans. The reason why one can use “determined” in a weaker way here, is that we can conclude how we got to this present situation through Retro-Hypo Determinism. We do not need to talk of cause and effect in a forward chain; yes, there was one cause in the beginning, but like a tree, infinite branches of causal chains split off and sprout. Conscious beings are very much like monkeys propelling themselves from one branch to another, shaping their surroundings as they go.

© Sofia Andrewski 2013

Sofia Andrewski BA (Philosophy and Classics) is a freelance writer and keen explorer of the mysterious and intriguing aspects of life. She writes extensively in the area of philosophy, ethics, spirituality, holistic lifestyles and nutrition, as well as dabbling in fiction. These topics are the focus of her blog. To read more, visit  

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11 comments on “The Problem of Free Will
  1. Asteral9 says:

    If I created robots lacking any free will, it doesn't really make any sense to include a function to have the ability to question and doubt if it have free will. And if I just give it the illusion that it have free will then what is the point? It would only made it realize the concept of what free will is. It would be far more appropriate that the robot have inability to question any of these things.


    This is why I consider that our very own ability to reject the concept of free will proves the existence of free will.

  2. Greg H. says:

    I have many disagreements with the things you have said.  I think it is very difficult to solve things with all of these undeveloped hypothetical characters, but I will try to play along.

    You say "we often decide to go against our nature and conform to external pressures. For example, an innately violent person may resist punching someone he dislikes because society tells him that is inappropriate. One could argue who we are does not always determine our decisions."  I would say it is in our nature to conform to pressures just as much as it is to be violent.  Whichever act he carries out (violence or peace) shows more of who he is (a violent person or an obedient person).

    You say that "Thoughts themselves do not produce actions" Than what is the intermediate process?  Are you saying that there are thoughts – then choice between thoiughts – then action?  I have a big problem with that.

    You say "I still caused the various thoughts about the conflicting possibilities and selected one critically, one that suited my preferences or needs"  Then you anticipate my argument and say that even if those needs and preferences are determined you still chose which ones to follow.  To that I say:  what do you base that final choice on if not more needs and preferences?  Is it now random?

    If you say logic, then that is still determined – because your logic is based on your education.  It could come down to whether you have a neuropsychological predispotion for short-term or long-term results.  For instance your starvning man could steal the bread for a short term pleasure of food over the long-term pleasure of a clear conciense.  Or he could steal the bread for the short term pleasure knowing that he can absolve he guilty conciense later by confessing his sins and being forgiven.  Or he could choose not to eat accepting the short term pain of hunger over the long-term pain of prison.  Or maybe he would steal the bread knowing if he gets caught he will be fed prison.  It all depends on how he is predisposed to short-term and long-term valuation and what he knows about his environment and the systems he is a part of.

    • Sofia Andrewski says:

      Hi Greg, thank you for your comments. For the first quote, my point was that his charactere is violent but he confroms, not because he is obedient, but that he is resisting the impulse through his awareness of other pressures.

      Thoughts not creating actions in themselves. What I meant was this: thinking about cooking alone doesn't cook anything. One thinks, and then on the basis of this, one acts. The intermediary state is simply the brain sending signals to the muscles to perform the appropriate action, if that is what the agent has (explicitly ot implicitly) decided to do. If this wasn't the case, then every thought would immediately cause an action, which is not the case. 

      With the preferences, my point was not that preferences aren't somehow determined (even though personally I think one can easily use the weaker form of "determined" here) but that I can weigh up and select options based on my preferences. 

      In terms of the long-term, short-term argument, it is of course true that these considerations play a part in decision making. Everyone generally prefers short-term gain over long-term reward. This is part of our make-up I agree. However, there is no evidence that brain psyiology alone determines human behaviour–we have cultural pressures, and critical reasoning abilities. A person who is consciously aware of this during decision making can change the way they perceive gratification, and decide what is most important to them. 

  3. Odair Fernandes says:

    C'mon guys. So simple to answer…

    Why do we insist in thinking that determinism and free will are enemies? They are not even neutral to each other. Actually they are very close and old friends. They walk side by side everywhere and determinism is the greatest body-guard of free will.

    Surprised? You are surprised cause you don't know how free will really acts.

    It is simple.

    Free will is not exercised "online", at "real-time", "moment after moment" as you think; it is not exercised at the same time (or few intants before) you act or think or do anything.

    We live inside a virtual reality created by God Himself (or whatever you can call "God"). We are actors in a movie set and all we have done so far (and what we will) was writen zillions of years before we were born.

    But it comes the question again: if we are actors doing pre-written scripts, where is our free will? Well… the answer is: "The script we are following was written by ourselves (in a certain way, by the choices we made and not exactly writen by our own hands)". Of course the freedom of chosing we had was different for me and for you, the same way you have (as we generally think) the freedom of chosing to buy this or that car (as long as you have money enough to chose).

    The choices you made were made before you were born and the "screenwriters" showed you how would be your "next life on earth" and asked you if you accepted the "settings". Once you accepted and you were born, all memories of what happened before you be born were erased (except few ones, including some scenes that you will recognize during your life and it will be called as "deja vu").

    We all live inside a kind of prision (the role each one of us play) in accordance with what is necessary for our evolution. Once the role is chosen and you finaly is born, you can't change anything and determinism will assure that the free will you exercised (before you were born) will be respected and the things you have chosen to happen in your life (including the good and bad ones) will happen indeed (so, determinism is the free will body guard).

    Got it? Free will and determinism are not enemies. Free will is exercised by you (not now, but before you were born and in accordance with the prerrogatives you had at that time) and determinism actually is free will body guard.

  4. Rehan Saeed says:

    Could you freely choose to stand up on just one leg for just a few seconds? Yes, off course.

    Now, while standing up on one leg, could you also 'freely choose' to raise the other leg up too? No, that would definitely lead to a fall.

    Inference: Our free-will has severe limitations set by our surroundings; physical, social, etc. phenomenon. We do have choices, though; the choices are defined by the circumstances. The best we could do is to choose the best option at the moment we have to make a choice. Science, education, religion, knowledge, wisdom, common sense, ethics and all likes just help us to make good choices, as learned and practiced by other humans around us. Choices made today create the circumstances for tomorrow’s new decisions to be made, and so on!

    Wishing good choices for all!


  5. Chua says:

    Hi Sofia, 

    In your arguments, emotions are left out and only intelligence was disccused in the process of decision making. May I know in your opinion how does human emotions come into the equation (if it does play a role)?

    Thank you

  6. BillA says:

    Hi Dolors,

    Please Keep up the pace with your videos.  I look forward to your fresh perspective.  It is helping me along in my own personal journey towards awareness.  I wish there were more people like you in this world.

  7. Erik Heyninck says:

    Biochemists pretend that when they could get an overview of your entire biochemical conditin, they could predict that tomorrow morning you will have, say, chocolate for breakfast.

    If you would know their choice, you could choose not to follow and have, say, a banana.

    They would argument that if you didn't know, you *would* have chocolate.

    Yet, because you yourself may not know beforehand the biochemical choice, their declaration wouldhave an exception. this would make it not universally valid and, therefore no scientific law. Biochemical predestination is not a scientific law but an assumption.


  8. John says:

    I hope this is the right place to post this. I have come to believe that God is a complex adaptive system and that our free will is necessary for him to function. The following is how I figure it all works. I would be grateful for your thoughts and if the idea has any merit, I would hope that Dolors would include it in a video. Thanks, John


    Imagine if your cells could think. They would think that you are nothing more than a place. They wouldn't realize that the place they live in is living. You are not the creator of your cells. Your cells and your consciousness (you) were created by evolution. Your consciousness is a complex adaptive system that evolved to care for the cellular community from which it emerges. I imagine that our relationship with God is the same. God emerges from the busyness of the things in this world in the same way that we emerge from the busyness of our cells. Most people see the universe as a place, but I think it is a person (God). The universe is conscious by virtue of the information moving throughout it in feedback loops. This is the same mechanism that gives us consciousness. See for an explanation how consciousness emerges. Anyway God looks after us, which is to say he looks after himself as best he can, but he is not our creator any more than we are the creator of our cells. So he is not responsible for our problems, he is doing the best he can for us but he is not in control of everything. Random events for instance – in order for us to have free will, there must be random events that he cannot control. If there were no random events then everything would be predetermined and there would be no free will. Without free will, neither we nor God could function. So stuff happens, it's the price of free will, it's not God’s fault. He loves us very much, which to say he loves himself but in much deeper way than we love our cells because he has many times more nodes in his nervous system than we have in ours, and so is capable of much greater understanding and much greater compassion. Anyone who cares to can speak to him. When he speaks back to us, it seems to me, he speaks with miracles. He showers us with miracles which is to say he speaks to us all the time. I notice them everywhere in very common things.

  9. None says:

    The idea of freewill in probable existing reality sets can also be deterministic.

    Infinite permutations can capture and determine an endless amount of reality

    and choice variables and determine the outcome of all of them; because all

    of them are inevitable because there is no limit to an infinite number of

    choice and reality variables. IMHO, even when a waveform packet collapses

    and forces a choice between an intangled particle of one or the other

    by awareness, the variables of conciousness are also predetermined.

    This is because there are an infinite amount of variables of consciousness

    and their objects in interaction, and thus all permutations are determined,

    but also infinitely interactive and endless………





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