Skip to main content

Who’s responsible for ‘free will?’ Reminding you that all ideas were once new

A figure adapted from Soon, Brass, Heinze and Haynes’ 2008 
fMRI study where a “free decision” could be predicted above
 chance 7 seconds before it was consciously “felt.”  Those 
green globs could be thought of as the unconscious part of 
your brain that is actually in control of your life.  Image here,
paper here 

As seen previously on this blog, the notion of “Free Will” is a bit of a Neuroethics battleground. About 30 years ago, Dr. Benjamin Libet et. al. published an experiment where the researchers were able to predict when human volunteers would press a button- a fraction of a second before the participants themselves realized they were going to do so.  And despite suggestions that the scientific method is breaking down, there is an entire cottage industry of scientists replicating Libet’s result and finding more and more effective ways to predict what you are going to be ‘freely’ thinking.

I’ll defer to Scott Adams of Dilbert fame to describe why this is a problem:

This is from 1992.  Libet’s study was published in 1983.  Your life has been absurd  for the past 30 years. (I haven’t been able to track down exactly what “Brain Research” Scott Adams was referencing here, but it seems to be similar  to  the Libet experiment.)  From  

The implications are pretty tremendous- if my conscious mind is just observing a decision that has already been made, and not participating in a decision, how is that decision mine?  How can I be blamed for decisions that I am merely watching?

However, it’s hard to scientifically argue that free will is (or isn’t) an illusion, unless you know exactly what it is in the first place.  So Jason Shepard and Shane Reuter ran a test to see how folks actually use the phrase ‘free will.’  All well and good, that certainly beats just assuming that everyone has the same definition.

But then a sinking feeling emerges- here is an idea that is so precious to us, that we actually start becoming worse people when we hear that it is an illusion.  And yet this authoritative definition is coming to us through majority rule?  Our hero is roused to action, and sets out to find a ‘correct’ definition, not just a ‘popular’ one…

While using undergraduates in these sorts of psychology studies isn’t necessarily problematic, I’ve been an undergraduate, and thus do not trust these people with my free will.  They might put it in a Dr. Pepper bottle filled with dry ice and chuck it into an abandoned parking lot late at night.  That would be terrible.  Image from

But with so many variants on free will floating around, how do you choose a ‘correct’ definition?  Does free will mean free from the laws of physics (metaphysical libertarianism)?  Free from control by an omnipotent God?  Free from mental disease, free from peer pressure, free from our own emotions?  And what, exactly, is a ‘will?’  Does it need to be ‘conscious’?  Our hero thinks to himself, “what would Science do?”

And suddenly the answer becomes embarrassingly clear: why, just give the definition of the phrase to whoever coined it!  Those who followed should be forced to use different phrases for whatever ‘revisionist’ notions of free will they invented- free-ish will.  Free-range will.  Will Zero.  Our hero sits back and reflects on the cleverness and superiority of the Sciences over all other domains of thought [1].  Now all that is left to do is a wee bit of Googling.  Pish pish, easy post.

However, after significant Googling, and digging through two different libraries, and further Googling, and reading books that were over 100 years old[2], and talking to people who were familiar enough with the topic to actually respect its subtleties, and staring at a computer screen wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into, our hero realized that figuring out who is responsible for infecting us with an attachment to ‘free will’ wasn’t going to be an easy task.  More like a thesis, or a career.

What is clear from the relatively small portion of the literature that I’ve been able to digest is that people have been talking about free will for over a millennium, but less than three millennia.  Probably.  In the early 20th century it was common to presume that folks have always had a notion of free will, an example being in 1923  when W.D. Ross confidently asserted that “Aristotle shared the plain man’s belief in free will.” This was despite Ross’s admission, two pages later, that Aristotle “did not examine the problem very thoroughly, and did not express himself with perfect consistency.”[3]  Later scholars took this lack of clear discussion to conclude that Aristotle lacked a notion of will, free or otherwise, altogether.  So, Aristotle’s clean.  For now.

Would Shepard and Reuter’s study have gone differently if St. Augustine

took a psychology class at Emory in the spring of 2012? Images from here and here

In his 1974 Sather lectures at Berkeley[4], Albrecht Dihle put forth his argument that St. Augustine, in the 4th century AD, was the first person to put together our ‘Western notion’ of free will.  St. Augustine came to an (arguably libertarian) notion of free will as a way to solve the problem of evil: how could a benevolent and omnipotent God allow for a world with evil? Answer: humans are responsible for evil due to their free will (which got tainted when Adam and Eve consumed a particular fruit).  Augustine describes this ‘free will’ as a first cause, with no causes before it, meaning God gets none of the blame and gets to remain omnipotent.  So, St. Augustine is the one responsible!  Or so it seems…

Fast forward to 1997, and we find Michael Frede putting forth an argument (in his own Sather lectures at Berkeley[5]) that Dihle was being too restrictive in his definition of ‘Free Will,’ and that St. Augustine got his idea about what free will was from the stoics.  Frede argues that it was actually the late stoic Epictetus[6] who first developed a full notion of will, in the 2nd century AD.  Epictetus gets the blame as he was the first to link three critical claims together: that all voluntary acts are caused by wishes, that wishes are created by the rational soul, and therefore that all voluntary acts are caused by acts of reason, which is to say, caused by choice.  This is contrasted with the Aristotelian and Platonic schools of thought, that held that voluntary acts could also be the result of non-rational urges (thirst, hunger, etc).  So Epictetus is responsible then.  Okay…

But coming up to the present, we see reactions to Frede’s arguments.  Karen Neilsen recently published an article[7] where she argues that Aristotle (HIM again!) actually developed a notion of will prior to Epictetus, making the point that Frede translates the Greek ‘prohairesis’ as ‘will’ for Epictetus and as ‘decision’ for Aristotle (although Neilsen makes no comment on the ‘free’ aspect).  So to understand where ‘will’ came from, we are looking at shifting definitions in ancient Greek.  AAGH!

The lesson here is that this concept didn’t emerge suddenly out of the history of the west.  “Free will,” whatever it is, was a gradual development over thousands of years, with input from several schools of classic Greek thought, as well as Jewish and Christian traditions.  Perhaps then, instead of thinking of “free will” as a single well-defined idea, it should be thought of as an entire lineage of ideas.  If this is the case, neuroscientists, science writers, and the public at large need to be very cautious when asserting that “free will is an illusion” is a scientifically valid hypothesis.  If neuroscience wants to make points on “free will,” it needs to be both more specific as to what variant of “free will” it refers to, and more broad in the variants of ‘free will’ it entertains.

[1]– I hope the childish language here makes it clear that I actually think otherwise.  Joking aside, there is an important point to be made here on the differences between philosophy and science (and the subsequent frustrations felt by both when they interact), especially considering that this is a NeuroEthics blog.  I don’t have a real answer, but I’ll start a discussion by pointing to Robert Hartman’s 1963 paper “The Logical difference between Philosophy and Science.”  Hartman asserts that all of science is built on top of the super-system of mathematics, whereas each philosopher effectively creates its own, semi-independent system.  Seeing how Hartman admits to building on the ideas of famed 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, one might be tempted to call this bogus.  But perhaps Science can be thought of like Star Wars, where new authors are continually adding to the same (expanded) universe, where Philosophy can be thought of like Batman, where authors are continually re-telling the same story and re-imagining the same characters in different ways.  Or perhaps someone who studies the philosophy of science needs to slap me around a bit in the comments section.

[2] Keep in mind that I’m a neuroscientist here, so I rarely read things that were written more than 20 years ago: Wow.  I had to read the printed-in-1900 copy of Epictetus’s discourses I found at Tech’s library out loud.  Just in case it contained an incantation.  Also, the pages smelled AMAZING.

[3]W. D. Ross, Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1923), page 199-201

[4]A. Dihle, The Theory of Will in Classical Antiquity.  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)

[5]M. Frede, A Free Will: Origin of the Notion in Ancient Thought  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)

[6] Epictetus was a freed slave in the house of Nero.  As a former slave, his accusatory discussion on freedom in ‘Discourses’ is particularly difficult to write off.  Highly suggested.

[7]K. Neilsen, The Will – Origins of the Notion in Aristotle’s Thought.  Antiquorum Philosophia (2012). Available at:  Note that I owe a lot of the structure of the history above to this source

Want to cite this post?

Zeller-Townson, RT. (2012). Who’s responsible for ‘free will?’ Reminding you that all ideas were once new. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


Emory Neuroethics on Facebook