Free will – 11/01/2016

Do we have free will?

Ali is a free man, or so he thinks. What he doesn’t know, is that the evil professor Klatz has planted a chip in his brain. This chip in Ali’s brain allows professor Klatz to exercise full control over all of Ali’s decisions. Ali is unaware of this. He experiences his own decision making as if he himself takes his decisions. Ali is free to go wherever he wants, do whatever he chooses to do. Nobody, not even the professor, curbs Ali’s freedom of action. It’s just that the professor controls Ali’s brain in such a way that when he is faced with the choice whether to have porridge or toast for breakfast, the professor makes Ali choose porridge rather than toast, regardless of whether Ali would’ve chosen the same thing if he hadn’t been manipulated.

Meanwhile, Babs is imprisoned in a small cell. She is physically constrained in her freedom of action. She can’t go anywhere and she can’t do many of the things she would choose to do, but this doesn’t stop her fantasizing about what she would do if she hadn’t been confined in a prison cell. But all to no avail: she can’t even arrange her own breakfast. This morning, the prison guard asked her: “What would you like for breakfast, Babs? Porridge or toast?” Babs considers both options and chooses porridge. There is no chip in Babs’ brain and no evil professor controls her decisions, the choice is hers. Yet, it has no influence whatsoever on the actions of the guard; he is just teasing her, he has already made her toast.

Who has free will, Ali or Babs?

A: Babs has free will, but Ali hasn’t. The will is free if you can choose between more than one option and nothing but you determines which of the two you choose. The ability to choose makes the will free. The fact that the physical world Babs lives in makes it impossible for her to manifest those choices is irrelevant.

B: Both Babs and Ali have free will. The will is always free, whether you can cause your own decisions has nothing to do with it.

C: Neither Babs nor Ali have free will. Even professor Klatz has no free will. Free will is an illusion.

D: Ali has free will, but Babs hasn’t (or at the very least the freedom of her will is severely limited). Regardless of how a decision is caused, one can only truly speak of freedom of the will if the decision, once it is made, can be acted upon. Babs’ fantasies are not real exercises of a free will.


Philosophers have distinguished freedom of the will from freedom of action for centuries. But do we have a free will? How we answer that question depends on what we understand by freedom of the will. Furthermore, however we answer this question, it will have consequences for how we think about morality, personal identity and a wide range of other philosophical, legal and psychological questions.


A lecture by Daniel Dennett on free will in which he uses this comic strip of Dilbert. He disagrees with Sam Harris, who gives a lecture on his side of the argument. But these are just two of many possible positions on the matter.

This ‘Mind over Masters’ debate between a philosopher, a neuroscientist, a psychologist and a developmental psychologist shows that there are still quite some conceptual misunderstandings between the interlocutors! (is the developmental psychologist talking about the same kind of freedom as the philosopher?) But it also shows that a belief in a free will has real, immediate, implications beyond the realm of philosophy.


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