b. Evidence in Favour of Free Will and the Consequences of its Denial

Evidence in Favour of Free Will and the Consequences of its Denial

Libet’s Experiments

The experiments carried out in the 1970’s by the American neuroscientist, Benjamin Libet (1916 -2007), are often cited as evidence that we do not have free will. Libet found that unconscious electrical activity occurred in the brain before we became aware of a decision to act. Significantly, however, he also found that the conscious mind was able to veto those unconscious decisions. In fact, he regarded his findings as compatible with, but not, of course, proof of the existence of free will.

Social Norms

Despite the longstanding scientific and philosophical debate about free will, every society assumes that we do have it and are, therefore, personally responsible for our actions. Nowhere can we stand before a judge, admit to malfeasance, and successfully argue that we are guiltless because determinism made it inevitable. Nor can we expect to avoid censure if we claim the same after behaving anti-socially. The assumption of free will is a cultural universal. Without it, no-one would take responsibility for their actions or be held accountable for them, and society would very quickly collapse. The assumption that we have free will creates societies in which some of us have the luxury to doubt it.

Support for the existence of free will comes from the fact that our social and psychological nature has evolved over millions of years and is very unlikely to have evolved in a way that contradicts reality.

Personal Wellbeing

For the individual, accepting free will means accepting that we have some power to change ourselves and the world around us. Because we are conscious creatures and aware of ourselves, we can change ourselves through a process of internal feedback. It would enable us to criticize our own attitudes and behaviour and try to control or modify them. Furthermore, most of us have consciences which reward or punish us, psychologically, for our actions.

On the other hand, the denial of free will can lead to a state of powerlessness and despondency and, ultimately, to mental ill health. Research in 1979, by Seligman et al, has also shown a significant relationship between helplessness and depression. Accepting free will is the mentally healthy option, therefore.

Again, our psychological nature has also evolved over millions of years and, it too is very unlikely to contradict reality.

Anti-entropic behaviour

Whether or not the universe is deterministic, we are presented with a series of seemingly random events, some of which present a risk, some of which present an opportunity but most of which are neutral. However, we are not entirely the victims of random events and merely blowing about like leaves in the wind. Rather, the way in which we respond to them affects the outcome. We have needs which give us a predisposition to act when an opportunity or risk arises. In this way we steer our surroundings from a state of relative chaos and unpredictability to a state of greater organisation and predictability. Our anti-entropic behaviour tends to create organisation and predictability whilst everything around us tends to destroy it. This strongly suggests that the universe is non-deterministic and that we have free will.

Consequences of the Denial of Free Will

None of this evidence proves that we have free will, of course. There is no definitive evidence one way or the other. However, the denial of free will does have consequences.

Recently, there has been a tendency among scientists to favour the determinist view which holds that the world, including the decisions we make, are predetermined and beyond our individual control. We do not know whether the universe is deterministic or not. Again, there is no irrefutable evidence one way or the other. However, we do have opinions on the matter. Although most scientists and philosophers try hard to be objective, they are still subject to unconscious beliefs, biases, and attitudes. Although probably more resistant, they are still exposed to the Zeitgeist, vested interests, peer group pressure, cultural influence and groupthink.

The deterministic view may, therefore, be gaining traction for cultural rather than scientific reasons. For example, it may be a reaction against Christian beliefs, which include the divine nature of free will. It may be because determinism benefits the status quo and an inequitable consumer economy, as I will describe below. Or it may be a combination of such factors. If so, then we should consider who may benefit and who may not.

In 2003, the sociologists Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer found that a sense of powerlessness is most likely to be experienced when there is a sharp divide between those wielding power and decision-making authority and those of subordinate status. The article below gives several practical examples:

Significantly, in 1975, the psychologist, Martin Seligman, developed the theory of learned helplessness, whereby people who feel unable to exert some control over their lives cease trying to do so. Other research has found that a sense of powerlessness is closely correlated with acceptance and justification of the status quo.

In summary, determinism implies a lack of free will. Accepting a lack of free will gives one a sense of powerlessness. A sense of powerlessness means that one is more accepting of the status quo and less likely to strive for change. So, those who benefit from a belief in determinism are those who benefit from the status quo.

If we accept the determinist argument and behave as though we have no free will then we will not make the effort to improve ourselves or our society. If we do behave as though we have free will and, rightly or wrongly, try to improve matters, then there is no risk of having thrown away something of enormous value due to a belief which may have been propagated in the interests of a few.

a. Do We have Free Will?

Do We Have Free Will?


Free will is the idea that we can influence the direction that our lives and those of others will take by the choices that we make. Whether we have free will or whether we live in a world in which our fate is predetermined is one of the unresolved questions of science and philosophy. What we believe to be the answer to this question has profound implications for our personal wellbeing and that of society. I will, therefore, begin this series of articles with a discussion of whether we have free will.

Causality and Determinism

Causality relies on objects and events occupying a region of space-time so that the beginning of one, the cause, precedes the beginning of another, the effect. The region of space-time occupied by the cause must also contain the beginning of the effect.

A deterministic universe is one in which everything, including events and physical objects, has a cause. This implies that everything can be traced back to one original cause, the big bang, and that everything which subsequently occurred, including our decisions, was predetermined at that time.

Acausality and Indeterminism

Not everything in the universe has a cause. Space, time, and the laws of the universe are thought to have originated with the big bang. Thus, the big bang cannot be said to have had a cause. Some other mechanism may have been in play but, although we do not know what, it was certainly not causality.

There are other events which appear to be acausal. The radioactive decay of atoms and the appearance of virtual particles seem to occur at random, without any apparent cause. It may be that these events do result from some, yet unidentified, mechanism, but if anything “beyond” space-time is involved then, in the same way as the big bang, this mechanism is acausal.

Some of these acausal events interact with existing particles creating very small changes. As time passes, these changes can propagate and become magnified to such an extent that circumstances after the interaction are fundamentally different to those which might have prevailed without it. Furthermore, there will be infinitely many consequences of acausal events propagating through the universe. If they are truly acausal, then the result will be a probabilistic and unpredictable universe.

There would be no simple rules from which the state of the universe could be derived. Rather, such rules would be at least as complex as the universe itself. This, in turn, implies either that there is some entity as complex as the universe capable of holding those rules or that the rules and the universe are one and the same thing. The latter is, of course, the simpler and more likely explanation.

So, the existence of acausal events would imply that the universe was not predetermined by the Big Bang but rather by the most recent acausal event of any significance.


Determinism suggests that, after the point in time called “now”, the state of the universe is already mapped out and may even pre-exist. Indeterminism, on the other hand, implies that the future is uncertain or probabilistic, and, as it becomes ever more remote, increasingly so. Thus, knowing the situation at any point in time, we could only predict the future with reasonable accuracy a very short time ahead.

We cannot visit the future to know whether determinism or indeterminism is correct.  However, if the former, then we are following a path already mapped out and have no free will. On the other hand, if the future is probabilistic and only becomes certain as “now” progresses through time, then it is possible that we do have free will.

There is no proof one way or the other.  However, a popular acceptance of determinism has implications for us as individuals and for society. These include a fatalist attitude and a belief that we are powerless in the face of humanity’s difficulties. They also include a denial of personal responsibility for our actions and the damage that this might cause to society.

In my next post, I will discuss the evidence in favour of free will and expand on the consequences of its denial.