On Free Will

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On Free Will

Statue of Liberty, NY


On Free Will

Zhuhai Ye, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University



The question of the existence of free will has a profound impact on the study of philosophy, science, arts and society in general. Historically a number of theories have been formulated to explain free will and its relationship to the concept of freedom. This issue, despite rigorous debate, remains unresolved. Modern science and technology has emphasized the importance of this question and its place in traditional philosophical enquiry. This article provides a cross-disciplinary approach to the investigation of free will and touches upon the notion of freedom through consideration of three alternative explanations of free will; ‘Determinism’, ‘Libertarianism’ and ‘Compatibilism’. Their respective positions as well as implications for a number of disciplines are addressed and challenged. This article provides a brief introduction of these explanations, followed by a detailed discussion. To support the reader’s understanding of the three key concepts, the writer has adopted a dialogue approach, inspired and adapted from the BBC’s mini-series ‘Sherlock,’ which, it is hoped, will serve to illustrate and clarify the key philosophical elements. The article will then attempt to justify the writer’s position as a ‘Determinist’. Finally, examples are provided to facilitate a deeper understanding of the multi-disciplinary nature of this question and its associated effects. Further discussion could then be derived from the examples offered.

Keywords: free will, determinism, libertarianism, compatibilism, freedom


‘Free will’ has always been a controversial topic of debate across the generations. It has attracted more attention in recent years after the success of the ‘hard sciences’ – physics, chemistry and biology. The success of these sciences has raised an uncomfortable question about whether our actions or behaviors are predetermined or not.

One view point described as ‘hard determinism’ stresses that a universal causal chain strictly defines our actions and behaviors (Chan, 2012) in a way that a human being could be viewed as an automated robot, which will ‘react’ to the outside world’s stimulation according to a pre-determined core, the DNA. Though we are not entirely clear about the functions of DNA, ‘hard determinism’ emphasizes that there is no room left for humans to act by free will because there simply is no free will. Men are machines, despite possessing a smart inner core, which is, in essence, immaterial. The pre-programmed DNA, which is inherited from our forebears, has, through physical and chemical processes, served as the initiator of our actions and behaviors. As a result of the fact that humans all have DNA, it is an inevitable conclusion that all of our actions are pre-determined.

Another viewpoint attempts to answer the question by taking into account morality and introspection. Introspection tells us that we have freedom and morality presupposes freedom. (Chan, 2012) This viewpoint is called ‘libertarianism’. A simple example would be that a man who chooses to stay in and likes the position he currently holds must have free will in that he is enjoying his choice right now. Libertarians also would like to point out the fact that one has to take into account morality if one is to make a judgment. However, if morality is taken into account, it presupposes that one must have free will to behave in order to hold one guilty for the crime one commits. Therefore free will serves as a pre-requisite in moral systems. Although this view does not try to prove free will’s existence directly, it states that a lack of ‘free will’ will result in catastrophic situations that one normally would want to avoid. In addition, introspection directly proves the existence of free will because a person who introspects must be genuine.

A third viewpoint is called ‘compatibilism’. This view maintains a position in between hard determinism and the libertarianism, so it is also called ‘soft determinism’. Soft determinism denies both the existence of a causal chain and introspection. Instead it tries to combine them. The compatibilist would point out that free will requires causal determinism because if we want to have an action genuinely willed by ourselves, we need to have our will to cause our own actions (Chan, 2012). The key distinction lies in the fact that free will is free when our actions and volitions are not obstructed. Then it is not important to stress that we are predetermined to have this or that kind of free will, but we are free to implement and exercise the free will afterwards. Nor is it important to stress that there should be a kind of free will that is really ‘free’ as asserted by libertarians. We are unobstructed and this is enough to hold that we have free will.

These three viewpoints have been challenged and revised over the decades. This article will review them one by one and try to find if there is a sound position among them.


The Debate

Sherlock Holmes (SH), Dr. John Watson (John) and Mycroft Holmes (Mycroft) were having afternoon tea at 221B Baker Street. The topic of free will rose in discussion and they were prepared to have a hot debate.

Mycroft:    Speaking of the recent cases of the cabbie, it is hard to imagine there is someone behind him to control him in that horrible yet precise way. It would take an awful lot of our boys’ effort to have a man manipulated in that way.

SH:              Why?

Mycroft:    The cabbie did exactly what Moriarty told him to do at the exact time, exact place and in front of the exact person.

SH:              Simple calculation. I am sure you can do it a lot better, brother.

Mycroft:    Excuse me. It would take the whole British government to control a man like that. And I only occupy a minor position in the British government.

SH:              You would practically be the British government if you were not so busy playing secret service or CIA.

John:          Hang on a minute. We were talking about freedom of action right? How on earth do you think a man has the power to determine his own action?

Mycroft:    All.

(In the same time) SH: None.

John:          Oh please. Could you boys take turns? Mycroft?

Mycroft:    It is hardly debatable that one does not have a free will to do what one wants. Otherwise it will be meaningless if we tried to judge whether one’s actions are morally justified or not. It’s because we have the right to choose that we have the right to judge. This gives us our right to punish wrongdoers.

SH:              Come on. Moral judgment is not what they are really about. They only care to punish people to make sure these pigs do what they tell them to do.

Mycroft:    How dare you to talk like that!

SH:              Come on Mycroft. You know what the truth is. Punishment makes society better and this is the only reason why there is punishment. It is a good reason though.

John:          So you basically do not agree that humans have the free will to do what they truly hope to do?

SH:              No. My point is not about the fact whether a man has free will or not. My point is that there is simply no free will at all.

John:          How does this happen?

SH:              Causal relations. Causal relations establish a powerful network that none of us have the capability to escape. Your action must be caused by some events which happened before your action, yet you do not know it.

Mycroft:    How would you explain that sometimes some events do occur as if they came out from nowhere? If I want to have a coffee with Mrs. Hudson, whom I never meet before, where should the causation lie?

SH:              Simple. You do not see the causation simply because you are ignorant, brother. It would take you a lot of lives to figure out what exactly caused the action you are about to take but I know you want to have a coffee with Mrs. Hudson right when you walk into the house.

Mycroft:    Joke again. You are suggesting the causal chain is omnipotent and omnipresent.

SH:              Yes I am.

Mycroft:    Funny. Then you must have heard of the experiment of Schrodinger’s cat.

SH:              Yes. So what?

Mycroft:    If the causal chain is omnipotent and omnipresent, it must exist in Schrodinger’s black box somewhere. Then if the radioactive material ejects the particles following the rule of quantum mechanics, which is proved to be true, the particle must be in the state characterized by the wave function. It then follows that the cat in the black box must be in the state characterized by the wave function as well. So the cat must be, during the experiment time, both alive and dead at the same time, which is impossible.


Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Schrödinger wrote,

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts. It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks. (Schrödinger, 1935)

SH:              Of course the causal chain is omnipotent and omnipresent. The only thing that is wrong is your interpretation of Schrodinger’s cat experiment. The cat is obviously either alive or dead. This situation is characterized by the wave function in a sense that the wave function has already collapsed. You are wrong in a sense that you insist the causal chain would lead to unchangeable principles of physics. Some might want to call it the universal theory of physics. We have not found one but the odd thing is that you people do not believe there is one.

John:          OK guys. But if it is really the case that most of our actions are strictly predefined by our DNA or some other events happened before, is it possible that there truly is some action that reveals we have free will?

SH:              What do you think?

John:          Introspection.

SH:              Introspection?

John:          Yes. Introspection. Introspection must be genuine and it reveals the fact that a man can think on his own. This is free will.

SH:              No. This is not. Introspection is only an illusion. You think that you are thinking, but you actually are managing the chemical and physical processes according to some predefined manner. It is not convincing that introspection reveals that you are really thinking. You are only thinking because you are programmed to think at this place at this moment. The thoughts do not come from you. They come from the predefined programs.

John:          But you are actually thinking right?

SH:              Yes but it is trivial.

John:          No it is not trivial. You are thinking because you want to think right?

SH:              So? You want to think because you are predetermined to like thinking.

John:          No. This is sufficient to prove that we have free will because I like thinking at this moment and I am unobstructed to think at this moment.

SH:              How?

John:          When we say that we are free, what we mean is merely that we can will what we want to will, or we can do what we want to do. So far as we gain unobstructed volitions and action, we are free. (Chan 2012)

SH:              This is funny. Now you do not care about whether these actions are predetermined or not. You are trying to solve the problem by admitting a causal chain is necessary for the establishment and implementation of free will. But instead it is due to this causal chain that free will becomes possible, since we all need a causal chain to have our free will exercised.

John:          Yes and it is immaterial if we talk about the actual causation of our intention and our actions. As long as they are in line with each other, we are quite free.

Mycroft:    But only in line is not sufficient. You have to prove it is really genuine for one to act according to one’s intention and at the same time one should have the right to choose not to act according to this intention.

John:          In your statement you have enlarged the coverage of freedom from the position that freedom means one has the right to act according to one’s intention to a more strict position that one not only has the right to act according to one’s intention but also has the right not to act. Freedom implies that one has the choice not to act according to one’s will.

Mycroft:    Yes.

John:          My proof here might be rather tricky. One chooses not to act accordingly is in essence an action. If this is true, then one does make one’s own choice, which is not to act, according to one’s own intention, which is not to act.

Mycroft:    No. This is only the reverse version of the statement you have given earlier. The most important part is that the man should have two options in front of him and he is genuinely free to choose either one. If everything is predetermined at the first place, he would not have chosen otherwise even if it looks like he has two choices in front of him.

SH:              Then it is again predetermined.

John:          I understand it is quite hard to prove that man has the genuine right of choice. But consider this case: there is a holiday and this man is considering going to either Paris or Berlin. After reviewing all associated factors, he has found either place will give him the same amount of joy. The question now is which city he will choose to go to. If it is predetermined, he will certainly go to the predetermined one. But the factors are all the same. It is impossible to have a predetermined causation here since this is a pure 50-50 situation.

SH:              No. This example still does not refute the predetermination. Predetermination does not assert a fixed and one-ended conclusion, otherwise there would not be something called probability. Genuine random process is predetermined, just as in this situation that predetermination asserts that this man will have a 50-50 chance to choose between either going to Paris or Berlin.

John:          I do think that you have enlarged the definition of predetermination.


[Their discussion will certainly go on. However up to this point we have clearly recognized the three different positions they choose to stand by, yet all of their theories will have some flaws. It is rather hard to decide which one of the three theories shall prevail. In my view, after deep consideration, I believe that hard determinism is less problematic.]

The discussion above has briefly touched the debate of the existence of free will, which has in-depth impact not only in philosophy, but also in science, technology, culture and law. For example, some scientists claim to have found empirical evidence of the non-existence of free will through various studies, whose implications are still debated. These studies include Hinsen’s in A scientific model for free will is impossible (2010) and Libet’s in Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action (1985). Despite the powerful argument made by scientists, legislative bodies strongly reject the idea of the non-existence of free will. Their stance, however, is much more weakened after the publication of these scientific results.

The discussion of free will involves some very important concepts which are not elaborated in the article above. The most important one is the existence of causal chain. David Hume raised the question of the existence of causation in his book A Treatise of Human Nature (2003) and this severely impacts hard determinism’s fundamental presumption that a causal chain exists. Hume’s question has many answers but it is still regarded unsolved. Therefore whoever holds on to hard determinism is subject to the question of causation.

Moreover, the question of existence of free will was strongly influenced by Laplace’s famous thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon (1951). His argument is against the existence of free will but this argument’s foundation has been weakened by the discovery of quantum mechanics and the advance of computer science. The detailed argument can be found in his work A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1951). The interesting fact is that whereas science on the one hand weakens the argument for hard determinism in computing theory and physics, it also strengthens it by neuroscience and cognitive theory.

The last point worth noting is that the debate of free will may set out the boundary of ethics. The discussion of morals and ethics always assumes the existence of free will which is debatable. If the non-existence of free will is proved, the discussion of morals and ethics will be largely affected and some work has already been done to address this issue. For example, Aaron Bramson (2013) argues that the biological make-up of humans can sufficiently assume a moral theory without the presence of free will. His position is subject to further discussion.

The discussion of free will has broadened the horizons of study of philosophy, science and arts. It seems to me that this discussion will never end. However, I would also like to point out the essence of this type of discussion is not to discover an ultimate answer to the matter in question, but to seek the discussion itself that brings enlightenment through discussion.



Bramson, A. L. (2013). Ethics without free will. Retrieved from http://bramson.net/academ/public/Bramson-Ethics%20without%20Free%20Will.pdf

Chan, J. (2012). Being philosophical: Invitation to philosophical thinking. HK: McGraw Hill.

Hinsen, K. (2010). Letter: A scientific model for free will is impossible. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), E149.

Hume, D. (2003). A treatise of human nature. NY: Dover.

Laplace, P. S. (1951). A philosophical essay on probabilities (6th ed.) (F. W. Truscott and E. L. Emory Trans.) NY: Dover Publications.

Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. The Behavioral and Brian Sciences, 8, 529-566.

Schrödinger, E. (1935). Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik. Naturwissenschaften, 23 (49), 823-828.



This article is connected to a course assignment inviting students’ opinions on eight contemporary philosophical questions. Students are required to research one essay topic [in this case ‘Freedom’] and discuss findings and personal observations in a form that includes dialogue.



Zhuhai Ye was born in Chengdu, China in 1990. He is now a senior student in The Hong Kong Polytechnic University working towards a BEng in Electronic and Information Engineering and a BBA in Marketing. His current research interests include machine learning, buyer behavior modeling and AC-LED optimal configuration.