Death threats for thinkers who deny free will

Unchained: A detail from the painting “The Illusion Of Free Will” by Daniel Stroup.

Is free will an illusion? This week it was reported that a growing chorus of scientists now agrees that humans have no real choice. But outraged critics feel it robs their lives of meaning.

For the most part, philosophers don’t ruffle feathers as they used to in the days of Socrates. But this week, Galen Strawson told the Guardian that he has received death threats for suggesting that nobody has free will or was really responsible for their actions.

Clearly, the idea that free will is an illusion deeply disturbed the people who wrote to Strawson, but experiments have leant support to his case.

In 2007, for example, neuroscientists plugged people into an fMRI machine and asked them to press a button at random, using either their left or right hand. By looking at the image of the subject’s brain, the scientists could predict which hand would be chosen before the person in the machine reported having made the choice.

If the decision was made before we knew we made it, how can we claim that we willed to do something?

The simplest argument against free will is an ancient one. We live in a universe governed by cause and effect. If each action is caused by a previous one, how is it possible to say that I freely chose to do something? If I could do that, then the physical laws of the universe would not apply to me.

A famous version of this argument was made by a French philosopher called Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1814. He imagined a superintelligent demon who knew the position of every atom in the universe and the forces acting on them.

Laplace’s demon would then be able to predict the position of every atom in the future, including the ones in your brain, predicting your behaviour.

While quantum mechanics has thrown the idea of a fully predictable universe in doubt, Strawson himself has made an argument against free will which he claims holds true even without complete determinism.

Strawson also thinks that, without free will, we need to change how we think about responsibility.

Seen by the lights of Strawson’s argument, it was wrong for his correspondents to blame him for upsetting them – he could not choose to do otherwise. But it would also be a mistake for Strawson to blame them for being angry. Nobody could have behaved any differently.

Some argue, therefore, that we must go further. We cannot really say that criminals choose freely to commit crimes.

You have no choice but to be born with certain genes, in a certain environment and to live through certain events, which combine to give you your personality. This is what makes your choices, good or otherwise.

Another way of putting it is that every crime has only one real culprit, the Big Bang.

Instinctively, most people reject arguments against free will. We appeal to others, try to persuade them, treat them as if they could change their mind. We live all the time as if we had free will.

Sceptics, however, say that as the evidence mounts, we will have to accept the truth. We have no choice.

Is free will an illusion?

No choice

Yes, say some. The conscious experience of free will is simply a story we tell ourselves, after the fact, to justify what happens in our brain with no input from our conscious mind. Free will simply does not make sense and is not compatible with our understanding of physics. Belief in free will is a way of feeling in control, but it actually prevents us from sympathising with our helpless kind.

No, it isn’t, say others. The experimental evidence against free will has barely scratched the surface of human decision making. Some neuroscientists have even suggested that conscious decisions can rewire the brain. Furthermore, arguments against free will misunderstand what freedom is by trying to locate it outside of a person’s experience.

You Decide

  1. If free will were an illusion, would it be wrong to praise people for their achievements?
  2. Would you behave any differently if you believed you had no control over your destiny?


  1. After watching the first video on the neuroscience of free will, play ten games of rock paper scissors with a partner. Write down how you decided which move to play each time, then say if you think you could predict how your partner would play.
  2. After reading the debate between Daniel Dennett and Gregg Caruso, work together in a small group to script and act out a short trial. One of you should be a criminal who denies that they are responsible for their crime because there is no free will.

Some People Say...

“I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018), British theoretical physicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that philosophers who examine free will can be divided into three distinct traditions. These are known as determinists, compatibilists, and libertarians. Determinists believe that the world is governed or determined by a fixed chain of cause and effect and there is no free will. Compatibilists claim free will is compatible with cause and effect. Libertarianism denies that human behaviour is governed by cause and effect. Most philosophers now are compatibilists.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns the definition of freedom. Many compatibilists argue that freedom does not need to mean freedom from causation. They use the example of people being forced to do things as proof that some actions are, by contrast, freely chosen. opponents of this idea try to show that the line between compulsion and free choice is almost never clear.

Word Watch

The ancient Greek philosopher was executed for spreading ideas that might corrupt the youth of Athens.
Galen Strawson
Strawson’s father PF Strawson, wrote Freedom and Resentment, where he argued that the idea of free will was built into most interpersonal relationships and was needed for the language of moral responsibility. Galen, by contrast, is the author of The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging. A way of measuring brain activity by tracking the blood flow. The scans are often used to show which area of the brain is responsible for certain thoughts.
Aristotle offered a detailed distinction between voluntary actions and involuntary ones in the Nicomachean Ethics, written in the 4th Century BC.
Cause and effect
The principle that every action has a cause which comes before it.
Quantum mechanics
A theory for describing the behaviour of subatomic particles. It shows that it is impossible to fully predict the behaviour of certain particles, suggesting that the universe has an element of chance to it.
The belief that everything is inevitably determined by cause and effect.
People who write to you.
The big bang
A theory explaining the expansion of the universe, often used as a shorthand for the beginning and first cause of everything.

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