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When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It:
A Scientifically Suspect Folk Concept of Free Will
by John Mayers
The free will debate often juxtaposes two common views regarding the relationship between free will and determinism: libertarians and determinists. Both of these are forms of incompatibilism: the thesis that free will is incompatible with determinism. Broadly construed, libertarians accept the claim that we have free will, and thusly reject determinism, and determinists believe that accept determinism, and thusly reject the claim that we have free will. Conversely, compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism can and do theoretically coexist. I believe it necessary to clarify what I am arguing for or against, and the argument that serves as the foundation of my stance. Though I make reference to libertarian and deterministic views in this work, I do so only as a means of providing examples of the seemingly incorrigibly libertarianism characteristic of the folk concept of free will. However, I am not committed to determinism, incompatiblism, or compatibilism. Furthermore, the debate between compatibilism and imcompatibilism has long-since received its fair share of treatment in the philosophical literature, and I have little interest in contributing my own intuitions regarding something that seems to inevitably arrive at a conceptual impasse beyond which lies an understanding of physics that we have yet to achieve. Instead, my primary point of contention is with what I perceive to be a much more urgent issue related to free will: the libertarianism inherent to the folk intuition of free will, specifically how impervious this intuition remains even when confronted with evidence that contradicts it. While advancements in neuroimaging continue to enrich our understanding of biomechanical mechanisms that underlie human behavior, the findings they produce often run counter to folk intuitions an opposed to affirming them. Moreover, since it is maintained that free will is a precondition for moral responsibility in most cases, the presupposition of both its existence and efficacy are not without profound influence on human activity, both positive and negative in its outcome, and most notably within the legal system. Since recent evidence suggests that this presupposition grows increasingly suspect, I believe that experts are obligated to encourage a reconceptualization of this phenomenon as to allow for potential that we are, and have always been, a lot less free then we believe ourselves to be.
Is man truly free? This question, or some variation of it, has preoccupied the mind of philosopher, poet, and pious alike throughout written history. In our subjective experience, we intuitively interpret our conscious thoughts as having causal efficacy, and as the cause of at least some of our behaviors.[i] However, a cursory investigation of the literature pertaining to the concept of free will reveals that prominent figures in both philosophy and psychology remain divided on the nature of this phenomenon. Widespread debate and disagreement persists over whether it even exists at all, let alone what purpose it serves, or what mechanisms underlie it. While some researchers consider it to be a type of cognitive illusion,[ii] others vehemently defend it as if it serves as the very thread that keeps the fabric of civilization woven together, and that it would all come undone if one were to pull at it. An issue at the intersection of these two claims could be formulated as follows: despite the potential for it being an illusion, free will, and the beliefs in its existence and efficacy are beliefs rooted deeply in both human relations and activities,[iii]and while people do not always act as though they possess free will, they surely act as though they believe they do.[iv] If individuals implicitly assign causal efficacy to themselves and others,[v] then our beliefs about both the existence and efficacy of free will must significantly influence our perceptions of ourselves, as well as others. Further, any misconception related to this phenomenon potentially becomes detrimental when one considers the influence that it consequently has on our understanding of morality—namely, moral responsibility. Considering this, I explore the following question: is there an inherent danger in a commonly held belief concerning a universally experienced phenomenon existence and efficacy serve as bedrock upon which moral claims are constructed? To address this question, I conducted an interdisciplinary review of related research in both philosophy and psychology to bring the folk concept of free will, and the resulting implications for moral responsibility, into sharp relief.
Many renowned philosophers have worked to refine the concept of free will. In his famed work Leviathan, political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the concept in relation to the agent: “A free agent is he that can do as he will, and forebear as he will, and that liberty is the absence of external impediments.”[vi] While the legitimacy of the subsequent definition is debated within philosophy, an acceptable definition being that free will as a capacity characteristic of rational agents that allows them to choose a course of action from among different alternatives without impediments. Free will is closely related to the philosophical concept of “agency.” An agent could be defined in very general terms as “. . . a being with the capacity to act,” and agency “denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity.”[vii] Previous philosophical inquiry into the origin and purpose of this phenomenon occupied a shared space with theological doctrine, and attempts to reconcile the contradictions that arouse often resulted in elaborate attempts at justification and reconciliation. However, most contemporary philosophical scholarship chooses to circumvent the concept’s theological underpinnings, and focuses instead on the concept’s compatibility or incompatibility with determinism: the thesis that affirms that all events, including future events, are determined by antecedent events in conjunction with the laws of nature.[viii] Some contemporary philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, take a stance on the origin and function of free will that is both compatibilist and naturalistic, positing that the phenomenon is a byproduct of the evolutionary processes, being a capacity that proved to be evolutionarily advantageous. [ix] Others tend towards determinism, contentiously claiming that it is a type of cognitive illusion, citing emergent evidence from neuroscience and cognitive psychology.[x] Nonetheless, despite the tireless conceptual refinement and analytical scrutiny characteristic of the discipline,[xi] definitions remain vague, and little progress has been made in developing an adequate apprehension of free will.
As a discipline, psychology approaches free will quite differently, relying more so on experimentation than speculation. Therefore, the discipline’s contribution to the subject is focused on “collecting evidence about measurable variance in behaviors and inner processes and identifying consistent patterns in them.”[xii] Though previous conceptualizations of free will within psychology favored somewhat simpler deterministic viewpoints,[xiii] current research regarding the subject suggests that it is in fact not the byproduct of one specific unconscious source or process, but is instead several different processes coalescing simultaneously. Akin to the aforementioned argument put forth by Dennett, social psychologist Roy Baumeister proposes that what philosophers and psychologists may have been struggling to describe or define is an evolutionarily novel capacity for self-control contingent on the collective effort of multiple processes working in conjunction.[xiv] This novel form of self-control would prove especially advantageous in social settings, and the more readily the individual could regulate their impulses, the more readily they could adapt to shifting social expectations, and respond appropriately to abstract rules for governing one’s self and others.[xv] Still, difficulties arise when attempts are made to accurately determine which biological and physiological processes contribute to something historically conceptualized under the umbrella of a single psychological construct, and further, how they effectively do so. This multifaceted approach to understanding free will appears to be a positive advancement, but further questions consequently emerge related to the role that emotional regulation plays in one’s overall ability to self-regulate. Furthermore, if one of the contributing factors to the overall efficacy of will is biological, and a deficit in a requisite function is inherited, it becomes questionable as to whether an individual with such an inherited deficit is still worthy of blame or punishment.
Since much of the conversation concerning free will hinges on the commonsense experience of it, Andrew E. Monroe and Bertram F. Malle, researchers in the nascent field of experimental philosophy, endeavored to see how closely philosophical notions of free will approximated the folk concept of free will.[xvi] A folk concept, or folk intuition, could be roughly defined as the commonsense understanding of a given topic within a given group at a given time. In one study, the results suggested that the core of the folk concept of free will was choice, and the ability to exercise choice freely without internal or external restrictions or impediments.[xvii] In a related study, researchers found that the majority of the participants believed that agents act by their own free will and are therefore morally responsible for their actions.[xviii]
In the first part of the Monroe and Malle’s study, researchers asked the participants to first define free will, and, in the second part of the study, confronted them with neuroscientific claims that free will is an illusion—that only neural impulses exist—after which the participants could reconcile their position with deterministic claims or offer a counterargument. Approximately 75% of the participants provided a counterargument to the neuroscientific claims, with approximately 55% of participants citing belief in choice as their defense.[xix] However, it is arguable that “. . . automatic default programs that can be counteracted by more controlled processes. For the neuroscientist, controlled processes (that may go “against” the initial impulse) are just as much neural states determined by their preceding states. For people, the differences between impulse and regulatory processes, however, seems to make all the difference.”[xx] In plain terms the aforementioned statement asserts that while a given automatic process in the brain could be counteracted, overridden, or vetoed by a process that regulates it, both types of processes still exist within a hierarchy of mental processes determined by their previous states, and this fact tends to go unnoticed. In the second study, researchers provided scenarios in which “. . . there is a world where beliefs and values of every person are caused completely by the combination of one’s genes and one’s environment.”[xxi] Despite the fact that agent causation is impossible in the scenarios described, 76% of participants judged that the character in the scenario acted by his own volition.[xxii] Within the same study, a significant number of participants judged a character whose behavior was entirely predicted at the beginning of the universe and carried out by the laws of nature as morally responsible. Both studies revealed that the commonsense notion of agency persists despite contradicting the premises.
The previously mentioned research suggests that the folk intuition regarding free will is a capacity powerful enough to transcend the laws of nature that govern the deterministic model of the universe. Therefore, if the laws of nature were fixed, and the behavior of all of the material bodies within the universe were determined by these laws, approximately 75% of the participants surveyed would still believe that they—as well as everyone else— have the capacity to contradict or override these laws. Obvious issues arise when this assumption is subjected to critical analysis. First, let us consider the problem of demarcation. What qualifies as something one could choose verses what one could not choose? Several issues emerge concerning specific subjects, such as the role biology plays in mental processes, like mental illness. Is mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, a choice? Can one will their way out of a depressive episode? In this view, a person is not at the mercy of inherited predispositions or vulnerabilities. Even if your brain is a material object, and its behavior is determined by certain natural or physical laws, you can still override it. Therefore, counseling, or any prolonged therapeutic program, would be essentially unnecessary. If we could control our biological functions, hospitals would be nonessential as well, as it would follow that illness, as well as the death of the organic matter that is your physical body, are choices as well. Research has also revealed that there is a link between a reduced volume in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with the processing of emotions, and psychopathy.[xxiii] Based on this assumption, you could override any deficiencies that may arise in terms of physical matter and make decisions despite them.
This is an intentionally comedic rendering of human agency—namely, libertarianism. Libertarianism certainly has intuitive appeal, as it pairs nicely with dualist views of mind and body by allowing for the non-physical kind of force required to operate irrespective of physical laws. However, there remains absolutely no scientific evidence suggesting “causally effective processes in the mind or brain that violate the laws of physics.”[xxiv] Despite tireless attempts to rationalize this view with the intuitive antecdata that affirms it, it nonetheless continues to prove scientifically suspect. But what was once comedic can turn tragic when one considers that a belief so fundamentally contrary to what is affirmed by the sciences is the norm amongst laypeople. The individuals who entertain this view neglect to take into adequate consideration the innumerable internal variables (e.g. neurophysiology) and external variables (e.g. socio-economic status) that influence a single choice.
The complexity of this process makes the task of identifying what behavior one can consciously control quite painstaking. Some behaviors, such as those resulting from conditioning or habituation, may develop in such a way that theses behavior becomes reflexive or an involuntary and unconscious response to stimuli, but may be retrospectively rationalized as deriving from conscious choice. One issue with attempting to differentiate between conditioned behavior and other behaviors is the possibility that discrepancies related to functioning from brain to brain may have a profound influence on the mechanisms that underlie it, and therefore on the aggregate phenomenon they collectively produce. One may have the ability to consciously originate or veto an action, while another may not have the faculties to do so, due to conditioning, habituation, cognitive deficits, or some form of neuroatypicality. One would also have to take into consideration the possibility of change due to injury,[xxv] or change due to illness or imbalance in the otherwise normal functioning of a given individual’s brain.[xxvi] Thus, the boundaries that demarcate which behavior is conscious or unconscious in a given individual become vague to the point of being nonexistent when considered as a whole. Still, the suggestion that mankind has been endowed with a power that transcends biology is as laughable as it is dangerous, for such an inaccurate understanding of human behavior, be it moral or immoral, inarguably influences human relations. While the fundamentally libertarian folk concept of free will is an issue in itself, the most critical issue is the influence this illogical assumption has on our views of moral responsibility.
From the cheating spouse to the serial rapist, our commonsense experience tells us that people are causal agents and therefore responsible for their actions.[xxvii] Moral responsibility can be summarized as being responsible for one’s behavior, and therefore deserving praise, blame, and most importantly, punishment.[xxviii] This issue is critical because of the role the assumption of human agency plays in the legal system, since “legal and moral decisions often rest on whether one should have acted differently, which presupposes that one could have acted differently.”[xxix] The legal system has on several occasions publicly rejected the “deterministic view of human conduct,”[xxx] as enunciated in U.S. Supreme Court case Morissette v. United States with the claim that because “belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil”[xxxi] it was subsequently claimed to be “inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” in United States v. Grayson, nearly three decades later.[xxxii] Free will is perceived as foundational in our legal system, particularly in how we approach punishment. Though current legal doctrine allegedly accepts a compatibilist view regarding free will and determinism, it is in actuality founded on intuitions that prove incompatibilist, and deeply libertarian.[xxxiii] This inherent libertarianism can be most readily seen in the retributivist theory of punishment. Retributivism is a theory of punishment in which the goal of punishment is just dessert—i.e. what the individual is believed to deserve for their misdeed. However, the retributivist justification relies on, be it implicitly or explicitly, the presupposition of free will.[xxxiv] What happens, however, when you remove free will from the equation of crime and punishment? Research has shown a potentially positive impact of determinist views and evidence regarding neurophysiological contributions to behavior. A study conducted at Colorado State University showed that, when comparing those with weak and strong beliefs in free will, determinists are less retributive with regards to punishment for behavior.[xxxv] In a related study, when biomechanical evidence related to psychopathy was presented to a judge prior to the trial, there was a significant reduction in sentencing.[xxxvi] Participants with strong belief in free will tended to be more punitive than determinists, but this difference was largely based on the emotional response elicited by the content.[xxxvii] However, the evidence regarding any connection between an individual’s beliefs regarding free will and willingness to punish are largely inconclusive. Instead, research reveals that both libertarians and determinists attribute similar degrees of moral responsibility when the hypothetical crime arouses strong emotions.[xxxviii] Still, libertarian intuitions regarding free will play a central—albeit it implicit—role in the legal system, and any threat to the validity of this intuition could result in a revision of the legal system, especially, its justification for retributive punishment. “When genuine choice is deemed impossible, condemnation is less justified.”[xxxix] If the ability to choose, or choose to act otherwise, is removed from the equation, any resulting retributive punishment becomes both cruel and unnecessary.[xl] Therefore, while emerging neuroscientific evidence may not directly change the legal doctrine, it may nonetheless have a transformative effect on our longstanding intuitions about free will: “It is possible. . . that new neuroscience will change these moral intuitions by undermining the intuitive, libertarian conceptions of free will on which retributivism depends.”[xli]
Despite the apparent issues with the folk concept of free will, research suggests that disbelief in the existence of free will may conversely have negative consequences. The results of studies in both psychology and experimental philosophy have shown that disbelief in free will is associated with both an increase in aggressive behavior, and a decrease in helpfulness, suggesting a prosocial element to the belief of personal freedom.[xlii] Research has also revealed that disbelief in free will increases the likelihood of unethical behavior, such as cheating,[xliii] while participants with strongly held beliefs about their own free will found that retrospective reflections of their own life were more meaningful because they felt as though they personally chose the route that their life inevitably took.[xliv] These findings have encouraged psychologist Preben Bertelsen to propose that regardless of whether intentional actions are in fact initiated and or formed by free will, “to decline intentionality ad modum free-willed and conscious acts as mere illusions may have severe social and societal consequences for human morality and law-abiding activity.”[xlv] Bertelsen offers that, regardless of whether or not it exists, free will is a “necessary illusion,” an sentiment similar to Wegner’s claim that it is necessary fiction.[xlvi] There are certainly situations in which perpetuating a benign illusion in the name of individual comfort, such as assuring your dying grandmother that you will finish your medical degree, or to spare a life, such as lying to a Nazi officer when asked if you are harboring Jews, could be argued to be an ethical choice, or at least, a morally permissible one. However, on what basis can someone else claim to know what is best for another rational being? Arguments in favor of maintaining this purportedly necessary illusion are rooted in the fear that some pandemonium would subsequently ensue if people were to learn that free will was an illusion. I think that these arguments are both speculative and shortsighted, often failing to factor in any type of re-socialization period for what would inarguably be a profound perceptional paradigm shift. Nonetheless, any individual who proposes that it is in the best interest of the other to keep the other deluded assumes a certain moral or intellectual high ground from which they can make such a claim. While I can speak only for myself, I will risk the potential of making a hasty generalization about others by assuming that if personal agency is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, people would be rather disturbed to know that some amongst us are calling to keep the rest deliberately in the dark.
Because behavior is thought to be the result of physical processes in the brain interfacing with the environmental stimulus and stressors in an incredibly elaborate orchestration involving billions of neurons communicating across a vast network, resolving the issue would require a degree of understanding that we have not yet achieved. Since it appears that we are still years away from any adequate understanding of free will, one can assume that this contentious subject will continue to puzzle even the most highly regarded minds. Unfortunately, I find this squabble not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive. Instead of prolonging the divisive debate for and against, perhaps we should be open to emerging neuroscientific evidence as a means of informing our understanding of free will, and all of the mechanisms that possibly underlie it. Doing so may help researchers in the aforementioned fields gain a much more accurate appreciation of the vague borders that divide that which we can choose, from that which we cannot, and who was doing the choosing all along. It is this potential for widespread understanding that will then inform all of those who, when faced with an indistinct line separating what is free from what is not, dismiss the existence of a line altogether. Yet, to be fair, they may have never had a choice to believe otherwise.
[i] Daniel M. Wegner and Thalia Wheatley, "Apparent Mental Causation: Sources of the Experience of Will," American Psychologist 54, no. 7 (1999): 480.
[ii] Sam Harris. Free Will. Simon and Schuster, 2012.
[iii] Roy F. Baumeister. "Free Will in Scientific Psychology." Perspectives on Psychological Science, no. 1 (2008): 14-19.
[iv] John Baer, James C. Kaufman, and Roy Baumeister, Are We Free?: Psychology and Free Will (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008).
[vi] Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. A&C Black, 2006.
[vii] Markus Schlosser, "Agency," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, August 10, 2015, accessed November 02, 2017,
[viii] While the philosophical and theological arguments that appeal to both metaphysical assertions and deterministic claims are worthy of investigation, the author believed any further examination would result in an unnecessary digression given the purpose of the article.
[ix] Daniel C. Dennett. Freedom Evolves. Penguin UK, 2004.
[x] Sam Harris. Free Will.
[xi] Baer, Kaufman, and Baumeister, Are We Free?: Psychology and Free Will
[xii] Baumeister. "Free Will in Scientific Psychology." (2008)
[xiv] Roy F. Baumeister. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life. Oxford University Press, 2005.
[xv] Baumeister. "Free Will in Scientific Psychology." (2008)
[xvi] Andrew E. Monroe and Bertram F. Malle. " From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will." Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1, no. 2 (2010): 211-224.
[xviii] Eddy Nahmias, Stephen Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner. "Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions About Free Will and Moral Responsibility." Philosophical Psychology 18, no. 5 (2005): 561-584.
[xix] Monroe and Malle. " From Uncaused Will to Conscious Choice: The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will.”
[xxi] Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer, and Turner. "Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions About Free Will and Moral Responsibility."
[xxiii] R. James R. Blair. "Neurobiological Basis of Psychopathy." (2003): 5-7.
[xxiv] Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen. "For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 359, no. 1451 (2004): 1775.
[xxv] John Darrell Van Horn, Andrei Irimia, Carinna M. Torgerson, Micah C. Chambers, Ron Kikinis, and Arthur W. Toga. "Mapping connectivity damage in the case of Phineas Gage." PloS one 7, no. 5 (2012): e37454.
[xxvi] Jeffrey M. Burns, and Russell H. Swerdlow. "Right Orbitofrontal Tumor with Pedophilia Symptom and Constructional Apraxia Sign." Archives of Neurology 60, no. 3 (2003): 437-440.
[xxvii] R. James R. Blair. "Neurobiological Basis of Psychopathy."
[xxviii] Andrew Eshleman, "Moral Responsibility," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 06, 2001, accessed November 01, 2017,
[xxix] Sandra D. Haynes, Don Rojas, and Wayne Viney. "Free Will, Determinism, and Punishment." Psychological Reports 93, no. 3 (2003): 1013-1021.
[xxx] "United States v. Grayson, 438 U.S. 41 (1978)." Justia Law. Accessed April 02, 2018.
[xxxi] "Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952)." Justia Law. Accessed April 02, 2018.
[xxxii] "United States v. Grayson, 438 U.S. 41 (1978)."
[xxxiii] Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen. "For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything."
[xxxv] Haynes, Rojas, and Viney. "Free Will, Determinism, and Punishment."
[xxxvi] Lisa G. Aspinwall, Teneille R. Brown, and James Tabery. "The Double-edged Sword: Does Biomechanism Increase or Decrease Judges' Sentencing of Psychopaths?" Science 337, no. 6096 (2012): 846-849.
[xxxvii] Frank Krueger, Morris Hoffman, Henrik Walter, and Jordan Grafman. "An fMRI Investigation of the Effects of Belief in Free Will on Third-Party Punishment." Social cognitive and affective neuroscience 9, no. 8 (2013): 1143-1149.
[xxxviii] Krueger, Hoffman, Walter, and Grafman. "An fMRI Investigation of the Effects of Belief in Free Will on Third-Party Punishment."
[xxxix] Haynes, Rojas, and Viney. "Free Will, Determinism, and Punishment."
[xl] Admittedly, an absolute thicket of issues arises when one attempts to reconcile the legal system with a lack of agency, so a superficial examination of the problem undoubtedly fails to do it justice. Nonetheless, it is a subject in need of addressing.
[xli] Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen. "For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 359, no. 1451 (2004): 1775.
[xlii] Roy F. Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and C. Nathan DeWall. "Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35, no. 2 (2009): 260-268.
[xliii] Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler. "The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating." Psychological Science 19, no. 1 (2008): 49-54.
[xliv] Elizabeth Seto, Joshua A. Hicks, William E. Davis, and Rachel Smallman. "Free Will, Counterfactual Reflection, and the Meaningfulness of Life Events." Social Psychological and Personality Science 6, no. 3 (2015): 243-250.
[xlv] Preben Bertelsen. "Intentional Activity and Free Will as Core Concepts in Criminal Law and Psychology." Theory & Psychology 22, no. 1 (2012): 46-66.
[xlvi] Wegner, Daniel M. "The Illusion of Conscious Will." Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.