What is Free Will?

by Laurence Houlgate
(Emeritus professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University)

 John Searle vs Thomas Hobbes

Several years ago former University of California philosophy professor John Searle posted a YouTube video on the difficulty of finding a solution to the problem of free will. In the video, staged as an interview by an interlocutor, Searle begins with a description of the centuries-old stand-off between philosophers who say we have free will and those who deny this.

1. Philosophers who are pro-free will are often referred to as libertarians.  Searle says that one of the libertarian arguments is based on our daily experience of free will (e.g. throwing a baseball, going to class, playing the piano). If I feel that I am free to either throw or not throw the baseball, then it must be that I am free to throw or not throw the baseball.  If I feel that I am free to change my mind and not go to class today, then I am free to either attend or not attend.

Philosophers who are anti-free will are referred to as determinists.  The determinist argument begins with the premise that every event has a sufficient cause. A decision or choice is an event. An event that has a sufficient cause is not free. Therefore, a decision or choice is not free. It follows that what one feels as one goes about one’s daily life is irrelevant. No matter how we feel when we throw the baseball or change our mind about going to class today, these choices have a causally sufficient explanation.

2. One popular way out of this dilemma is promoted by a theory called compatibilism. This theory says that the phrase “I threw the ball of my own free will” is compatible with “There is a causally sufficient explanation for throwing the ball.”  When I say, “I threw the ball of my own free will” I mean that no one was stopping me from throwing the ball.  This does not contradict the determinist claim that there is a causally sufficient explanation for my choice to throw the ball.  If a neurobiologist says that she can explain why I threw the ball by examining my brain functions and the neural circuits that show how I decide or choose to behave, then this is perfectly compatible with my response that no one was stopping me from throwing the ball, that is, when I threw the ball I was doing so of my own free will.

One of the first philosophers to promote compatibility was the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan 1651).  Hobbes wrote that the concept “free will” simply means that there are no impediments to what I am doing (ch. 21). When the jailer says to the prisoner who has served his term, “You are now free to go” he means that there is no impediment to prevent the prisoner from walking out of the jail. The impediment is the jail cell.  The cell door is open.  The prisoner is free to go.

Hobbes also draws an analogy between (a) a man who “freely” gets out of a bed where he has been tied down by ropes and (b) “floodwaters are freely spilling over the riverbanks” (ibid.).   Hobbes claims that if there is no objection to the use of “freely” in (b), then there should be no objection to the use of “freely” in (a).  In both examples, the word “freely” does not mean that the events have no antecedent sufficient cause.  The word simply means that there is no impediment preventing the man from getting out of bed or the water from spilling.

This being said, the so-called “problem of free will” evaporates.  “You are free to go” is perfectly compatible with the claim that the prisoner’s choice to leave the jail is an event that has a sufficient causal explanation.

3. But Professor Searle does not agree.  He says that compatibilism is a “copout.” It is a theory that “evades the problem” that every decision we make has an antecedent cause that compels the decision.  If we can’t escape the chain of causation, then our actions and decisions are never free.  Therefore, freedom to choose is “an illusion.”  When I choose to throw the ball, decide to wash the dishes, or skip class, I am no different than a robot programmed to make the same choices.

4. Searle gets the last word. In the video he says that there is a “gap” between the chain of causation and one’s choices or decisions. The gap is not an empty space.  It is “the conscious process of decision-making.”  Searle’s example of this process (gap) is a situation in which you are weighing the pros and cons of two candidates for political office prior to making a decision to vote for one of them or (perhaps) not vote at all. Whatever you decide, your decision is not compelled by the process. The decision you make is entirely “up to you.” And that, Searle says, is free will.

Questions for thought and discussion:

1.  Is Hobbes right about his version of compatibilism?  Are there any defects in his theory that there is no conflict between libertarians and determinists about the meaning of free will?  Are they both right?

2.  Is Searle right about his version of libertarianism?  Are there any defects in his “gap” version of libertarianism?  How would a determinist respond to Searle’s gap theory?

3. Why does Searle say that compatibilism evades the problem of free will?  Do you agree?

4.  If determinism is right that no one can act of their own free will, then is it fair or just to punish people for wrongdoing?

5.  How does a determinist spend their day?  Do they just go about their business as if they had free will or should they sit down and wait for something to happen?


Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan.

Houlgate, Laurence. 2021. Understanding Thomas Hobbes (Amazon Kindle).

O’Connor, Timothy and Christopher Franklin, “Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2022 Edition)

Searle, John. 2023. Closer to Truth: What is Free Will. (YouTube with transcript).


Each study guide in the series you see below is written and designed for beginning and intermediate philosophy students. These guides can be reviewed and purchased at Amazon.com .

(or search on Amazon using the book title and my last name, e.g. Understanding Plato, Houlgate)


Understanding Philosophy, Third Edition (see book cover below) is a companion to the eight books in the Philosophy Study Guides series. It provides students with the grounding they need to read and better understand the classics of philosophy discussed in the series.

In Part I, the tools of the philosopher are described; for example, distinguishing between deductive and inductive arguments, recognizing valid argument forms, learning how logic and reasoning were used by the great philosophers, studying formal and informal fallacies, and other important distinctions between successes and pitfalls in reasoning.

Part II is about the important distinction, often ignored, between problems of philosophy and problems of science and the different methods used by each. (Hint: Have you ever seen a sign at your university that says “Philosophy Laboratory”? Or a memo that says “Philosophy field trip on Thursday. Sign up now.”?)

Part III provides students with a set of topics suitable for philosophy term papers, a seven-step approach to organizing and writing a paper, and solving a philosophical problem. Chapter 9 in Part III has a sample term paper on a problem that has recently gotten out of hand – and I mean this literally – by transforming a philosophical problem into a science problem. The problem is the age-old question about life after death, and the way it gets transformed is an excellent example of the wide difference between philosophical and scientific problems and methods.

Part IV shows how philosophical problems have been clarified and (sometimes) solved by the great philosophers using ‘reasoning’ (logic) in the analysis of key concepts. Examples of reasoning are taken from the works of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.

Part V is new. It focuses on four contemporary social issues: artificial intelligence, self-defense laws, offensive speech and behavior, and the current status of American democracy. Although most of these issues are not discussed in most classical works, I show that the methods of the great philosophers are nearly identical to the methods used by contemporary philosophers.
A word about ‘method’. I am using this term as “a way, technique, or process of or for doing something.” (MW). Applied to a philosophical problem, what I want to show beginning philosophy students are the techniques of clarifying and (hopefully) solving a philosophical problem.

I do not want to confuse the ways of doing philosophy with the philosophical debate about ways of knowing. There is an age-old debate between the schools of rationalism and empiricism. Without boring everyone with the details of this debate, I mention it here only because the debate presupposes the use of philosophical method, as described in Part I. Whether you are arguing for one school or the other you must rely on logic and reasoning.

Second, logic and reasoning are built into the definition of ‘philosophy’. Although this word also has several uses, Western philosophers would agree that philosophy is “critical reflection on the justification of basic human beliefs and analysis of basic concepts in terms of which such beliefs are expressed” (Edwards and Pap, xiv). This definition reaches at least as far back as the opening chapters of Plato’s Republic in which Socrates challenges his audience to define the concept of justice. This challenge marks the difference between philosophy and modern science.

And so, the philosopher’s parade that began 2,400 years ago continues to the present day. All you will need to join the parade is a desire to study our basic human beliefs and the concepts in which they have traditionally been expressed.

And since this is a parade of thought not legs, you won’t have to get out of your chair (or go on a field trip).


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7 thoughts on “What is Free Will?

  1. I have read all sorts of opinions on free will, from Harris to Hobbes to Houlgate, and now John Searle’s cop out notion. Compatibleism and determinism aside, I posit an elemental approach. Big brains might say elementary and that is alright with me. Just like Jesus is just alright with the Doobie Brothers. Or was, when they recorded the song. My limited view says free will obtains, wherever humans have choice(s). Even when we don’t, we DO something anyway, ergo, we have taken a decision; exercised a selection; made a choice. Primary conscious animals make choices, exercise selection although they do not “know” this in the conscious sense as we do. However, just as with us, their choices may result in death. Free will has both advantage and disadvantage. So, let the debate continue. It is both interesting and humorous.

  2. ”one of the libertarian arguments is based on our daily experience of free will (e.g. throwing a baseball…”.

    The first problem I see, is that ”free will’ is seen as a black or white thing: either it is there, or it is not. But who’s to say that there’s one degree of it? There is not, just like heat or cold. How long is a piece of string?

    The libertarian argument is ridiculous, in that it seeks to prove that because ultra basic ‘free will’ is true in one case, it must be true in all. Most people can lift a finger, but who’s in control of every other thing they do?

    Even scientific research seems to have demonstrated that we made a decision, in reality a sub-conscious stimulus was already present, and this we had no control over.

    My definition of ”free-will”: the will to believe that we have it. As for the will not to believe we have it, I think the proof is plenty, and obvious, for example, who has not experienced ‘falling in love’ with someone we didn’t even know? People have hanged themselves or killed someone else, or done other crazy things about this.

    These ‘libertarians’ try to explain something very, very complex, with ridiculous examples.

    Thank you for your essay.
    PS. and even the ‘we can lift a finger or throw a baseball’ claim can be quickly disproven, by adding: ‘Not in all cases, for there’s plenty of living people who can’t do that, and the dead ones have already stopped doing it.’.

  3. ” …the so-called “problem of free will” evaporates…”.

    Indeed. The problem has never been there: it has been created by getting entangled by the rigid notion of ‘it MUST be either black OR white’. No wonder it has been a ‘problem’. This is an example where knowledge did more harm than good. If one goes back about 2000 years, it will be seen that the whole thing was sufficiently clarified by Epictetus:

    ”Some things we have control over, others we don’t. Under our control are thoughts and actions. Not under our control are health, wealth….”.

    ”But Professor Searle does not agree. He says that compatibilism is a “copout.” It is a theory that “evades the problem”. I suppose he is fascinated by the idea of it being a ‘problem’.

    ”if we can’t escape the chain of causation, then our actions and decisions are never free.”. Again, the problem is when we try to establish a single rule that covers every possibility. When we say ‘never’ or ‘always’ that is is when we get into trouble, for there’s almost always exceptions to almost everything. These other views are too rigid, it all becomes like common politics: who’s better, the democrats or the republicans? Probably, both views are wrong, and both are right.

    The world around us is a mixture of mostly a lack of free will, with SOME free will, depending on context, and the latter is minor in comparison to the former.

    ”Therefore, freedom to choose is “an illusion.” Mostly, I agree with that statement, provided we add ‘for some things’. I agree with Epictetus, only our thoughts and actions are under our control (provided that there’s no other impediments). No one has control to what happens tomorrow.

    ” When I choose to throw the ball, decide to wash the dishes, or skip class, I am no different than a robot programmed to make the same choices.”. I fail to see how this is true, for I can also decide right now not to wash the dishes and do something else, something that is easily enough under my control, so how am I a robot? Again, we are trying to fit something more shapeless than we think it is, into a box.

    ”The decision you make is entirely “up to you.” And that, Searle says, is free will.”.

    And they lived happily ever after? The ‘problem’ still goes on, since with the above statement I see nothing new has been added.

    ‘…are there any defects in his theory that there is no conflict between libertarians and determinists ?”.

    That is the way I see it: to the quarrel we had two parties who saw things rigidly as either ‘black’ or ‘white’, and then a third party tried to demonstrate that black and white are one and the same thing.

    ” Is Hobbes right about his version of compatibilism?”. I won’t pronounce myself on this, since I did not read Hobbes. I presume he’s a lot smarter than I, and that whatever the case, I would learn something from him. But in general, I am suspicious of theories that allows no exceptions.

    ” If determinism is right that no one can act of their own free will, then is it fair or just to punish people for wrongdoing?”.

    Black and white thinking again. I’ll make an example. On the topic of self-defence, the law says that one must only use ‘necessary force’. But this doesn’t mean ‘going easy’ or being careful not to hurt too much.

    If I am assaulted by a stranger, and I strike them in the face, and the assailant falls, hit their head, and dies, I can probably prove this was legitimate self defence.

    But if I hit the assailant, they fall, and the assailant becomes more reluctant to assail me again, and I have the opportunity to get away, but instead, I stomp on their head with a karate kick, chances are very strong that I’ll be tried and sentenced for murder.

    The law also says that to successfully prosecute someone, two components must be present: the fact that a crime has been carried out, and the fact that the suspect knew what they were doing (‘mens rea’). In other words: did the suspect HAVE THE CHOICE not to commit the crime?

    I am not a lawyer, but there is the answer to question 4 above. This is what a court of law tries to establish in trials, so of course one should be punished for wrongdoing, if they knew what they were doing, that is, if they had the CHOICE to carry out the crime or not. If one is completely insane, this becomes more problematic, but even then, who’s to say that someone insane still has no choices? And so the real question becomes: can they tell the difference between good and evil? If they can, I’d punish them regardless, absolutely.

    Now, the ‘punishment’ part is another problem, for I believe that our current justice system is an absolute farce and that the only just punishment is what is called: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, provided that the culpability is proven beyond any doubts. A very, very complex problem that probably would require resources we don’t really have. For you see criminals being interviewed after having carried out the most despicable acts saying: ‘I don’t really care, being in jail to me is like camping.’.

    I believe that the only just punishment is to receive one’s own medicine. Then, perhaps, one would be more mindful before doing something without much fear for consequences…

    ”…How does a determinist spend their day? ”. This one is easy, just substitute the fancy ‘determinist’ label with ‘anyone’, for determinism is just that, a label created by someone to simplify stuff. I has never been a way of life.

    ”… Do they just go about their business as if they had free will or should they sit down and wait for something to happen?”. A surprising question: really there are people who believe ‘determinists’ exists who sit around waiting for ‘something’ to happen? Waiting for what?

    We are much more alike than we believe we are different from each other.

    ”The world is like a candy shop: it is full of colourful shapes, and interesting ones to look at. But after all, it is all made from the same one paste.” -Schopenhauer

  4. PS. and even if a ‘determinist’ sits around ‘waiting for something to happen’ (whatever that means) , would that not be free will?

    Free will is the ability to choose an action and to carry it out (or not), it’s not sitting around doing nothing, unless this is a choice.

  5. My thoughts are that we have free will, but with caveats. Like Luigi states, it is not black and white. A quote from Marx sums up my thoughts on it fairly well, and it fits with Prof. Searle where he states there is a gap between deterministic forces and action, where one must make a decision.

    “Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”
    Karl Marx from “The Eighteenth Brumaire”

    With some reflection we can view the circumstances encountered as macro, micro, subconscious and biological. But to imply that they make for absolute determinism makes us a machine lacking in the ability to learn, and hence no agency/volition.
    This may apply to ants and bees, but not to any of the higher mammals I have life experience with.

    One can argue that past learning determines our agency. Plausible. But if so, then human behavior would be predictable. The job of intelligence analysts could be outsourced to a computer and we would never have diplomatic or economic surprises again.
    Won’t happen due to complexity of systems/thinking etc which make for emergent properties in our behavior as well as other natural systems. (as a side note, this is why terra-forming another planet to fit homo sapient needs won’t happen….behavior of complex natural systems are not deterministic either, which means their evolving properties can no more be pre-programmed than can our volition)

    Free will is also the Achilles heel of the pure free market economy envisioned by so many. Free Market proponents rest their arguments largely on people behaving in a manner of self-interest rationality. We know it doesn’t work that way. People make economic decisions that defy rational deterministic predictions.

    I will close with an extension of Marx’s thoughts. When I make a decision (choose a road if you will), I close off other possible roads and now travel to a set of future choices that could have been different if I had ‘made a different history’ for myself earlier.
    Summed up by this tidbit from the poet Wisława Szymborska in the last line of “Life While You Wait”.

    And whatever I may do
    will be forever changed into that which I have done

    Happy New Year to all.

  6. thanks for this Lyle. I have anothre forthcoming FW post and then I’ll take a brief stab at stating my own (not well-informed view.)

  7. ”Free will is the ability to choose an action and to carry it out (or not), it’s not sitting around doing nothing, unless this is a choice.”.

    Sorry, I wrote hastily. I meant: ”the opposite of free will is the inability to make a decision and to carry it out. It’s not sitting around doing nothing and ‘wait for something to happen, for if you decide to do that and did it, you had free will over it.’.

    I am getting old.

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