Free Will: A Conceptual Framework

by John Danaher

Free will, if it exists, is a property of agency. It is something that agents, in virtue of their constitution, can exhibit that non-agents cannot. Furthermore, free will may be the most morally, spiritually, and existentially important property of human agency.

It has occurred to me that I might like to look at some recent papers on the topic of free will on this blog. Those papers tend to assume that the reader is familiar with the ins and outs of the contemporary debate on this issue. I don’t like to make those kinds of assumptions, partly because you never know who might be reading a blog, and partly because reacquainting oneself with the basics of an issue is always worthwhile.

This post offers a conceptual framework for analysing the contemporary debate on free will. The framework comes in three sections. The first section examines the nature of free will as a property of agency; the second section considers the intellectual significance of the debate; and the third section outlines some of the positions one can take up in this debate.

1. The Nature of Free Will
No one would deny that the term “free will” is ambiguous. A lot of conceptual baggage has been attached to those two simple words over the years. This is one reason why the debate over free will (even in the philosophical literature) can be so frustrating: different authors apply different meanings to the term and often end up talking past on another.

In an effort to cut through some of that confusion, I like to appeal to a model of free will that I first came across in Henrik Walter’s book The Neurophilosophy of Free Will. Walter’s contention is that when we talk about the property of free will, we are talking about a decision-making capacity with three components:

  • (i) Alternativism: this is the capacity to (meaningfully) choose between different possible futures. In other words, if X must choose whether to eat an apple or an orange, and if X chooses the orange, it must still be possible for X to choose the apple.
  • (ii) Intelligibility: this is the capacity to act from intelligible reasons. In other words, X does not simply choose among possibilities at random, X chooses in accordance with reasons, intentions, desires and beliefs.
  • (iii) Origination: this is the capacity to be the originator of actions. In other words, X is not simply a passive receptacle through which external causal forces exert themselves but is, in some sense, the active originator of causal forces.

There are two main advantages to thinking about free will in this way. First, by focusing on three elements, this model helps to avoid the pitfalls associated with thinking about only one of the elements. For example, most discussions of free will are preoccupied with the concept of alternativism. But a popular objection to this preoccupation is that an agent with alternativism and nothing else might amount to little more than a random choice-generator. This would not be the kind of morally salient choice with which we are concerned. The extra ingredients of intelligibility and originations are needed for that.

Second, this model is flexible enough to encompass the diversity of positions that exist on the nature of free will. The flexibility stems from the fact that each of the three components can be subjected to strong, moderate or weak interpretations.

For example, a strong version of alternativism might contend that the agent must have been able to realise different possible futures in the exact same circumstances as obtained at the moment of their original decision. A weaker version might argue that sensitivity to changes in circumstances is all that is required. In future entries we will consider the respective merits of such interpretations.

Because one can have different interpretations of the three components, one can think of this model as describing three dimensions along which different theories of free will can vary. It might be the case that weak interpretations do not deserve the label “free will”, but this is something that can be worked out after the different positions have been described.

2. Intellectual Significance
Why do people bother writing and debating the concept of free will? What’s at stake in this debate? I suggest that there are three separate issues to worry about (I think I’m taking this from something Patricia Churchland said, but I can’t be too sure):

  • (i) The Metaphysical/Ontological Issue: this is concerned with the reality or non-reality of the different conceptions of free will. The most widely debated ontological issue is the impact of causal determinism on the possibility of free will.
  • (ii) The Moral Issue: this is concerned with the type of free will that is necessary for moral responsibility.
  • (iii) The Existential Issue: this is concerned with the existential impact of the different metaphysical conceptions of free will. For example, one might ask: if all our choices are causally determined, is practical reason somehow futile or meaningless?

Discussions of free will tend to blend these issues in different ways. This is understandable since how you resolve one of them will affect how you resolve the others. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping them distinct at the outset.

3. Different Positions on Free Will
After over two thousand years of sustained philosophical debate, one can imagine that numerous stances and positions have been identified on both the nature of free will and the moral and existential issues associated with it. It would be difficult to do justice to all of these positions, but thankfully most of the conversation tends to gravitate towards the following:

  • Libertarianism: this is the view that strong interpretations of all three components of the will are needed in order for there to be a meaningful sense of free will.
  • Incompatibilism: this is the view (usually associated with libertarianism) that either (a) free will is incompatible with causal determinism or (b) determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.
  • Hard incompatibilism/determinism: this is similar to the above. The addition of the adjective “hard” connotes a positive endorsement of the fact that the world is causally determined and that moral responsibility is impossible. Regular incompatibilists tend not to have that positive endorsement.*
  • Compatibilism: this is the view that either (a) free will is compatible with determinism or (b) moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. In order to avoid confusion, John Martin Fischer suggests that the latter position be termed semi-compatibilism.
  • Agent Causation: this view is a little harder to characterise. Put most simply, agent causationists are primarily concerned with the origination component of free will. They argue that agents cause their actions (or will their actions) in a manner that is distinct from ordinary event-event causation. In other words, they argue that agents are exempt from ordinary causal processes.

So there you have it, a conceptual framework for discussing free will. I will refer back to this post in future entries on this issue.


* “Positive” is meant here in the sense of “believes it to be true” and not “believes it to be a good or desirable thing”.

Note. This is just an introduction to the issue. Danaher explores the issue in depth here.)

This work by John Danaher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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7 thoughts on “Free Will: A Conceptual Framework

  1. Good post and clear discussion from Mr. Danaher. From an outsider perspective, I have thought the free will question overthought, detailed explanations, notwithstanding. For my understanding, this is a bit like recent discussions concerning morality and whether a “moralometer” might be feasible. I semi-jokingly offered a comparison of the concept, moralometer to our old friend, the polygraph. That device can be inconclusive in cases where the subject is an amoral, narcissist with emotionless control of bodily response and reflex. Such individuals are as cold as ice…and rare. Thankfully.

  2. Hmm… I take the view that the discussion of free will is analogous to the tiny tailbone at the base of the spine: it is a vestige of the past. This all goes back to the Christian debates over sin. When sin is the basis for determination of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, the question of free will takes on enormous significance.

    But to an atheist like me, the debate over free will seems pointless. I don’t care whether I or anybody else makes decisions based on genetics, or upbringing, or something that transcends everything. I don’t believe in magic. I know that my decisions are based on the entirety of my existence. Genetics plays a role. So does my upbringing, as well as my life experiences. The chemicals in my brain affect my decisions. So what? I am just “me”, and that “me” makes decisions. I am certain of one thing: my decision-making is founded on the same forces that determine the behavior of every animal. Unless I am willing to agree that slugs have free will, I have to deny the existence of human free will.

    I wish we could all mature beyond the belief that humans are superior to other creatures in some magical way.

  3. Was it Frost, who wrote of the two roads?. So, which way does one want to go? Decisions, decisions. Choices, choices. In any final sense, we go one way or another. Free will is not so difficult for anyone, save philosophers. Even physicists do not need bicker over such matters, and, even they understand some limitations. Free will has greater meaning than quantum mechanics. Why? Because it entails choice(s), most of which are known or knowable. The quantum world is microcosmic, nanocosmic. Nearly, infinite—hard to get to from here. Ouch.

  4. I follow Chris Crawford’s ideas on this subject, I think there really is no absolute free will, al our decisions are colored and controlled by our previous experiences, what we have been told, who we believe, whose approval we seek, and how we have been emotionally affected by our life’s experiences.
    These are the thing that form all people’s personalities and guide them in their decision making.

  5. Many a man just as erroneously thinks, as he holds a loaded pistol in his hands, he could shoot himself with it. This mechanical instrument is the least important means for the act: the most important is an extremely strong and therefore rare motive which has the frightful power to overcome the lust for life or, more correctly, the fear of death.

    Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics) (p. 69). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

  6. ”…I can do what I will: I can, if I will, give everything that I have to the poor and thereby become one myself— if I will!—But I am not able to will it because opposing motives have much too much power over me for me to be able to do it. Whereas, if I had a different character, and indeed, to the extent that I were a saint, then I would be able to will it; however, then I would also have no choice but to will it: I would, thus, have to do it.—This all goes perfectly well with the ‘I can do what I will’ of the self-consciousness, in which even today some unthinking…”

    Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics) (pp. 69-70). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

  7. ”This all goes perfectly well with the ‘I can do what I will’ of the self-consciousness…”. Just to be clear, here Schopenhauer isn’t praising his own thoughts, (someone who would do that so obviously would indeed seem ridiculous, even if the thoughts were great) instead he’s going to sarcastically attack what he sees as common and simplistic, i.e. self-consciousness saying: ‘I can do what I will’. In his view, this is a common delusion, and he of course elaborates relentlessly on the reasons why.

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