Who has free will?

I’ve been gone most of the day, and am only now beginning to catch up with the many good comments about free will.  I knew that I wouldn’t get broad agreement (or even much agreement) on my contracausal notion of free will, but I do think that the advances of science have forced people to rethink and redefine “free will.”  I’ll be back in action tomorrow, but for the nonce I’d like to pose this question:

To those who think that “free will” resides entirely in the making of choices, even if in some sense those choices are determined, please respond to this:

How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds?  Mice? 

Animals, after all, appear to make decisions the same way we do.  Anybody who has cats knows this: at naptime they appear to consider their options for a sleeping spot, and when faced with a human about to open a door, they seem to ponder whether to come in or not.  When a female sage grouse approaches a lek of males, frantically displaying to get her attention, she appears to choose which male to mate with.  How neurologically simple must a species be before we stop saying that it makes choices?

Ergo, I’d like to know peoples’ own concept of “free will” (if, indeed, they think it’s a coherent concept), and then, according to that notion, a judgment about whether the facility is limited to humans (Dan Dennett, as I recall, thinks it is).

And I promise not to post on the topic again for at least a month.


  1. Kevin Meredith
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    For purposes of discussion, here’s my attempt at two alternative definitions of free will:

    Free Will Definition 1: The sensation of choice an entity feels as it obeys inviolable behavioral laws

    Free Will Definition 2: The capacity of an entity to select from several behavioral options following conscious deliberation

    If you accept Def. 1, there is no free will. If you accept Def. 2, free will does exist.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      I disagree – if definition #1 is accepted then Free Will surely exists, but the phrase is merely a description of a subjective phenomenon in much the same way as we might say there is a “beautiful blue”.

  2. Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Hello Dr. Coyne,

    I’m a member of SSA-Whitewater and I came to atheism in large part because I couldn’t reconcile an omniscient being with free will. Ironically the more I think about it the less I believe in free will at all. To my understanding free will is the illusion of choice. There are many choices we could make but we can only make one choice at a time. Each choice will be the result of our preferences which were shaped long before the current choice is presented to us.

    What I don’t like about this is I can see how people can look at this and say “aha there is no free will so I’m not responsible for my actions.” Since we cannot calculate every variable to determine every choice a person will make, we should in practice operate as though people do have free will for society to function. Determinism may be the correct underlying principle, but free will is practical for everyday use.


  3. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    It’s a difficult empirical question being studied right now by people who study animal cognition. I would imagine that there are non-human animals who make choice and deliberate to some degree. The only reason that I can think that Dan Dennett would limit free will to humans is that we are the only species which uses language. (Many species communicate, but language is more than just communication). Without a practical normative concepts like “I should do X”, perhaps deliberation and action is different in ways that are relevant to the question of free will. The important thing is that with a Compatibilist account we have re-entered the world of scientific possibility and there is a research program that we can pursue to study non-human animals as agents.

  4. Rob
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    For the question of whether or not something has free will, is tool use a good proxy?

    It shows knowledge of consequences, which IMHO, is an important part of free will.

  5. Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    DAMMIT, I just spent 45 mins replying to the series of T’s objections to my comments regarding quantum indeterminacy vs hidden variables and accidentally hit the wrong key and lost it all. ARRRGH!!!

    So I’m going to try and summarize what I said…

    First – I am not a physicist nor a scientist of any flavor, and you certainly may choose to dismiss me on that alone. I have studied particle physics and quantum mechanics as well as cosmology, astronomy etc, and I write about science. To that end, I have conversed with numerous accomplished physicists, astronomers, etc, in order to be sure what I think they’re saying is correct.

    The idea of randomness fascinates me, so it’s one I pursue with a number of scientists and mathematicians. I’ll add that I don’t have the ability to do these calculations myself, so I have to choose my sources carefully.

    All that said – what I have been told, quite plainly, by most of those I have asked, is that while we currently describe an unpredictability (randomness), it is a mistake to infer that this means an absolute unpredictability – that many scientists believe that when our technologies are improved, we may have the ability to recognize the causality in what now appears to be unpredictable. In other words, that QM is deterministic. Again, NOT ALL scientists have said that to me… one in particular, a quantum physicist, is quite convinced that there IS a TRUE randomness… and he uses that as his evidence for a god.

    For the sake of fairness, I did add a comment regarding QM randomness and free will: “Even if there were some undetermined action at the deepest quantum level, it would still be constrained by its environment. Further, any apparent randomness is quickly eliminated and goes to determinism while still at the atomic level.”

    As I understand ‘hidden variables’ there is nothing religious contained within the idea – it simply means causes which we are currently unable to identify.

    To the best of my knowledge of the Bell’s theorem experiments, there has never yet been one fully able to eliminate an error range. If I’m wrong, then… I’d love a reference.

    (One thing I’ve yet to be able to reconcile with a hard determinism is the many-worlds interpretation … still working on that!)

    In any case, I remain unconvinced of true randomness given the above. I don’t have anything invested in any theory – for me, I simply want to understand the state of the art the best I am able.

    So… I’d love to hear what others think about philosophical determinism… in the sense of Dr. Coyne’s query. I think it would be useful to give our definition of what sort of free will we’re discussing. I thank you folks who replied to me.

  6. physicalist
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    It seems clear to me that there are degrees of responsibility, and this is tied to someone being more or less free (in the compatibilist sense).

    We forgive a child for something that we hold an adult accountable for, because the adult “really should have known better.”

    So no no-human animal (that we know of) is free to the same degree that we are, but it’s clear that many social mammals act freely (i.e., they do things because they want to do them, they make choices). Which animals have which cognitive abilities is obviously an empirical question that we’ve barely begun to answer.

    If you want a picture of full-fledged human freedom, you might want to look at Wolf’s account, which ties freedom to the notion of sanity. Which animals can be sane/insane?

  7. KP
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “And I promise not to post on the topic again for at least a month.”

    Good luck with that…Seems like nobody wants to let this one go.

    “How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?”

    EXACTLY. This is my question. Where is the cut-off for free will and do other species show ‘free will’ to the extent that you’d expect it if “choice” evolved with brain complexity?

    Religious folks might restrict it to having free will in terms of “choosing” to “have a relationship” with God or not, given these nuances and other species, etc. etc. blah blah.

  8. Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Whatever free will is, or whatever it is that provides the illusion of free will, it must, I think, be founded on the ability to make rational choices, rather than just “instinctive” or reflexive ones.

    It also seems to me that rational thought is required for problem solving, so any animal that exhibits that kind of intelligence also has free will (or whatever it is that isn’t).

    So, the usual list: apes, Cetaceans, corvids, parrots, octopodes, and so on.

    Apes have it, for sure. Once, in a zoo in the Netherlands, a youth was having fun banging on the glass of the apes’ (chimps’, I think) enclosure when a big chimp threw himself at the glass, and the youth jumped back in fright. The chimp looked slyly amused… It was very clear to me at the time that this was a premeditated move, not just an irrational, angry reaction. (Of course, I could’ve just been anthropomorphising… )


  9. benjdm
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    How many species other than humans have free will? Do cats have it? How about birds? Mice?

    0, then x++1′.

  10. matt
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    “How neurologically simple must a species be before we stop saying that it makes choices?”

    What is the difference between a choice and response, you ask? It’s the same as the difference between species. I would expect a little more tolerance for the squishiness of life from a biologist.

  11. Dominic
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I heard that it was that bloke who lives around the corner.

  12. chemicalscum
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Neurological systems, brains and ultimately consciousness, have evolved to enable organisms to maximize maximize their reproduction in Hilbert space. The multiplicity of potential contrafactuals creates the appearance or indeed reality of existential radical freedom.

  13. Janney
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Maybe the naive concept of free will works fine as long as we don’t imagine an omniscient point of view from which we could see the future as the past.

    Absent the idea of the future as a place which already exists, we give every appearance of being free to cause, or prevent, or influence events which haven’t happened yet. But the Omniscience meme contains the Clockwork Unwinding meme–if the future were something one could literally see, then clearly it would be as good as done already.

    (I wonder if free will isn’t so insisted upon by Christians because it’s so obviously undermined by the presence of an omniscient deity.)

    Free will is a pretty good heuristic for day-to-day use. It’s oversimple, but it works pretty well most of the time. It breaks down if you look at it too closely, but a lot of useful rules of thumb do, like up vs. down, and the solidity of solids, and species membership.

  14. ratobranco
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you are absolutely right here.

    In fact, we don’t even need to get into the scientific evidence against free will to see the problem. The idea of free will itself is incoherent a priori.

    Philosopher Galen Strawson explains:


    Basically, the argument goes like this. A choice requires a motivation for choosing. If you choose X over Y, there has to be some motivation within you that leads you to choose X over Y. That motivation can be described in psychological terms (as a consequence of your feelings, emotions, etc.) or in neurobiological terms (as a conseqeuence of the state of your brain). Either will suffice.

    Now, if your choice is constrained to follow a motivation within you, then it obviously cannot be described as free. It cannot deviate from that motivation. (Note: if a free will supporter says that you choose your motivation for choosing, then we enter an infinte regress–based on what motivation do you choose that motivation?).

    So the only way a choice can be free is if it lacks a motivation. But then it cannot really be described as being a choice, and especially not as being *your* choice. For its directionality arises randomly, rather than from some motivation within you.

    Therefore the idea of a free choice is incoherent. The choice is either determined by a motivation (not free) or random (not rational, not appropriately described as your choice, morally irrelevant).

    This author elaborates more deeply:


    Game, set, match.

    IMO Free-will is just another construct that tries to skate a false middle between contradictory concepts, much like other religious concepts such as God.

    As for animals having free will, nothing in the universe has free will. Even if there were a God, he would not have free will. The very concept is sheer nonsense put together by human cognition. It is a way of codifying our ingrained feelings about responsibility (priase and blame), which evolved in virtue of the useful learning and behavior feedback functions they fulfill.

  15. Cherry Poppens
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I look at awareness, the sense of a ‘world’ that we see, hear, etc and I don’t see why this would be necessary or even possible given a completely cause and effect world of particles bashing into each other and having reactions UNLESS particles or energy are all aware OR unless there’s some ‘complexity threshhold’ for awareness ‘written in’ to the base rules for the universe OR unless there’s some kind of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. Now, I’m NOT saying “There’s a god!”. I’m simply saying that hard materialism either can not explain awareness in terms of the brain OR that it has yet to do so. With most of what we do such as hunt, gather, mate, write poetry, play chess, whatever, I’m perfectly content to just say “Look! The brain is great at playing with data! It’s a really cool computer!”. But awareness seems, to me, to be different. We could do everything we do (except, perhaps, wonder about our awareness)without being aware. It serves no evolutionary purpose and it’s hard as hell to explain in terms of a ‘meat computer’. So why do we have it? I don’t know.

    But then I look at choice. We seem to have choice. But maybe we don’t. But maybe the same source that gives us awareness gives us choice.

    And finally, it seems really really cruel that the universe would give us awareness and NOT give us choice. It’s like “Hey, here’s a horror movie and you have to sit through it and I’ve put plastic hooks in your eyelids to force you to watch it.”.

    And yeah, ‘argument from cruel universe’ and ‘argument from incredulity’ aren’t good arguments BUT before I jump onto the ‘there is no freewill’ bandwagon, I’m going to need PROOF. Not ‘supporting evidence’.

    Sam Harris gave a lecture attacking freewill. Well, I do need PROOF so that attack is necessary as ‘proving that free will does not exist’ is pretty much an ‘attack on freewill’. BUT he argued against freewill simply by repeating what we know about the brain. The problem with this is that choice, if it exists, is magical. No, hear me out. Science is, IMHO, an attempt to find cause. Even quantum physics with it’s ‘randomness’ is simply where they are with respect to their understanding of the root causes of what they observe about electron and sub-nuclear particle behaviors. So here’s science trying to find cause. But choice, by definition, can not have a cause.

    Yeah, it’s a mind-fuck. BUT still, choice, by definition, can not have a cause. B/c if it did have a cause, it would simply be another effect. Therefore science can never explain it, therefore choice must be magical. Explaining away choice in terms of the brain misses the very point of what choice IS (or would be if it exists).

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