Free Will Exists and Is Measurable

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Edmon de Haro

I’m delighted that so many people have felt irresistibly compelled to read, share, and comment on my Atlantic article “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—But we’re better off believing in it anyway.”

Quite a few of those readers have assumed—understandably, given the article’s title—that I don’t think there is such a thing as free will. But that’s not the case. I report on the idea that free will has been wholly refuted, but I don’t endorse it. I argue that this view is spreading—for example, into courtrooms—and I quote Sam Harris, who defends this view eloquently, and I explore what might happen if this view continues to spread further.

But as I say, it’s not my view. There is, however, one important variety of free will that I do reject: the one that has it as an unearthly power; some kind of mysterious force standing outside of science as we know it, and allowing us to make choices that are not caused by our brains. A significant number of those who commented on the article seem to subscribe to such an idea of free will, including the best-selling author Eben Alexander, who, in a blog post, claims that:

The physical brain does not produce consciousness, so much as serve as a filter that allows primordial consciousness to trickle into our awareness in a very limited fashion, which is the “here-and-now” that we experience in normal waking reality.

As I have argued elsewhere, I think this view is wrong: There is a great deal of evidence that consciousness—and therefore all our decision-making processes—stem entirely from the brain. I’d therefore be happy to say that there is no such thing as that kind of free will, the kind that posits such fancies as free-floating minds or primordial consciousness-transmitters.

On a different note, Alexander and some other commentators point out that quantum mechanics demonstrates that the world is not straightforwardly deterministic. In this, they are right: quantum indeterminacy implies that physical reality has an irreducibly probabilistic nature. Other readers have pointed out that even classical physics does not always allow us to accurately predict what will happen: According to chaos theory, any of an incalculably huge number of tiny differences in initial conditions can lead to radically different outcomes. (At least, that’s the excuse weather forecasters use for getting it wrong.) This too is a fair point.

But neither quantum indeterminacy nor chaos theory give us free will in the sense of a special power to transcend the laws of nature. They introduce respectively randomness and unpredictability, but not free-floating minds that cause atoms to swerve, or neurons to fire, or people to act. So you could read instances of the term “determinism” in my article as meaning roughly “the belief that human action is the product of physical laws” and all the points would remain the same.

The kind of free will that I do think exists is one that is actually entirely compatible with the laws of nature as we know them. This kind of free will doesn’t happen at the level of quantum events, or even of individual neurones. It happens at the level studied by psychology—the level of decisions, deliberations and imagination.

Careful readers will note that this is the view defended by the philosopher Bruce Waller, whose ideas I favourably report towards the end of the article. Professor Waller argues that animals evolved the capacities we associate with free will in order to survive—capacities like generating options for themselves, deliberating over which is the best option, and having the will to then stick to their choice. We humans, with our massive brains, have all of these capacities in abundance.

Seeing free will in terms of these psychological capacities has the interesting implication that it is in principle measurable. We already have tests that assess people’s reasoning skills, creativity, self-control and the likes, all of which are essential components of psychological free will. In another essay, I have suggested that we could therefore meaningfully talk about a “Freedom Quotient” or FQ, which would allow us to rate your or my free will, and identify ways in which we could make it even freer.

There would be many practical applications of such a FQ. One is illustrated by the comments of an Atlantic reader who works as a psychotherapist. A therapist assumes causal determinism, according to the reader, in order to understand a person’s behaviour: “My methods are totally deterministic. I seek explanations for behavior that are both biological and environmentally based.” But, at the same time, the therapist’s goals are to increase the patient’s autonomy and ability to direct their lives:

My goal, as a therapist, is to give a person a greater sense of control of their lives, and to allow them to feel they're capable of making better decisions… [and] to create new experiences for the patient, experiences that will allow her/him to develop the skills to alter his/her behavior in the future.

Or, as we might say, to increase their FQ.

The free will debate is such a hardy perennial because these two levels of explanation appear to contradict each other: On the one hand, seeing humans as part of nature’s causal chain; on the other hand, seeing humans as autonomous, creative, deliberating beings. But we are slowly moving towards a better understanding of both levels, and this—more than any fanciful ideas of free-floating consciousness-transmitters—will help us eventually to become the best we can be.