Why I (Still) Believe in Free Will and Responsibility

Edited version published under the title ‘Partly free’ in The Times Literary Supplement on 6 July, 2007.


David Hodgson[1]

It’s widely asserted by scientists and philosophers that our decisions and actions are wholly determined by physical processes of our brains; and many also assert that this means we cannot have free will and cannot, in any real sense, be responsible for what we do.  In recent times, this has led to some questioning of the basis of criminal responsibility.[2]

I too feel the force of reasons supporting these assertions.  Science since the time of Newton has progressively explained more and more of what happens in the world in terms of laws of nature; and over the last century these explanations have increasingly been applied to the operations of the human brain.  It’s reasonable to believe that our conscious experiences, including visual and auditory experiences, thoughts and feelings, are wholly caused by and correspond with physical processes of our brains; and neuroscience suggests that these same physical processes wholly cause our decisions and actions.

However, I believe there are stronger reasons for holding that, while our conscious experiences do correspond with physical processes of our brains, these experiences can themselves have effects beyond those explicable in terms of physical processes and laws of nature, and that this enables us to have free will and to be responsible for our actions.  And I believe these reasons should be more widely known:  scientific and philosophical challenges to free will and responsibility have been much publicised in recent times, but contrary views have not.

I will outline these reasons here, in three sections:  first, a positive argument centred on plausible reasoning and conscious experiences; second, an argument that science can accommodate free will; and third, some conclusions about responsibility.


In this first section, I will state and support six assertions about human reasoning, and in particular how it differs from computational information-processing and how it may use conscious experiences; leading to a seventh assertion that I suggest is a reasonable conclusion from these six premises.

(1)  Human beings have the ability to make reasonable decisions about what to do and what to believe. 

I don’t think many people will dispute this.  We all live our lives in the belief that we have this ability, and our experiences of our own decisions and those of other people generally confirm this.  Of course everyone makes mistakes, and people do and believe silly things; but generally reasons for this can be found, reasons that are consistent with the existence, in most persons at least, of the ability to make reasonable decisions.         Any intellectual enquiry must assume that those engaged in the enquiry have the ability to make reasonable decisions about what to believe.  The rejection of this assumption would make all intellectual endeavours pointless.

(2)  An important part of this ability is the ability to engage in plausible reasoning, in which premises or data do not entail conclusions but rather support them as a matter of reasonable judgment.

Most human reasoning is not algorithmic. That is, it does not (overtly at least) proceed in accordance with rules of logic and/or mathematics and/or probability, or any other rules that could be incorporated into a computer program.  Rather, it is informal plausible reasoning, in which the premises or data do not entail the conclusions by virtue of applicable rules, but rather support them as a matter of reasonable (albeit fallible) judgment.

          It’s widely accepted that the most reliable knowledge comes from application of the scientific method, involving the formulation and testing of hypotheses; but even this method depends heavily on plausible reasoning, in the formulation of hypotheses to be tested, the devising of experiments to test them, and the selection of which unrefuted hypotheses should be provisionally accepted (because while experiments can refute general hypotheses, they cannot prove them to be true).  If plausible reasoning could not support reasonable decisions about what to believe, science and philosophy would be impossible.

(3)  Plausible reasoning cannot be reduced to any kind of algorithmic process using discovered or invented rules for good reasoning.

Arguments of Hume, Popper and others, particularly as developed by the American philosopher Hilary Putnam, show that plausible reasoning cannot be fully explained in terms of rules for good reasoning, whether they be rules of logic or mathematics or probability or whatever.  Putnam concluded that human rationality cannot be formalised without formalising complete human personality, and possibly not even then.[3]

Consistently with this, consciously-held reasons for decisions and actions are often inconclusive, and there is an apparent gap between reasons on the one hand and decisions and actions on the other.[4]  Hume said we always act in accordance with the preponderance of our desires; but that assumes that desires, like forces in Newtonian physics, are commensurable, so that there is always a single ‘resultant’ desire that can direct our decisions and actions; whereas in truth there is no common scale on which (say) a feeling of hunger can be explicitly weighed against a feeling of obligation to carry out a promised task.  If ‘desires’ such as these conflict, the outcome is not determined by any overt preponderance of one over the other (because there can be no preponderance of incommensurables), but by plausible reasoning to a decision that takes account of their different characters.

Now I can’t altogether rule out the possibility that plausible reasoning might be explained as an expression of unconscious computational processes that don’t have any validity on the basis of discovered or invented rules for good reasoning, but which work because they have been selected in evolution for their effectiveness in promoting survival and reproduction; but I believe the following premises show this is unlikely to be a complete explanation of plausible reasoning.

(4)  A person’s conscious experiences (including visual and auditory experiences, thoughts and feelings) can contribute positively to plausible reasoning.

Our brains are capable of performing marvelous unconscious algorithmic procedures, for example in the pre-conscious processes required to achieve three-dimensional vision, and also stability of a viewed scene despite voluntary movements of one’s head and eyes.  If optimal decisions on matters important for our survival and reproduction could be made without a positive contribution from conscious experiences, it could be expected that evolution would have ensured that decisions be made by using just this prodigious unconscious computing capacity, particularly when our conscious processes seem clumsy and fallible by comparison.

And yet, we are so constituted that, whenever in life we are faced with a novel situation requiring some significant decision or action, our conscious minds are automatically brought to bear.  Much unconscious information-processing seems to be finely tuned to support conscious experiences in which currently important information is presented simply and vividly, in the manner of an executive summary prepared for a decision-maker in business or government.  (Computer scientist Marvin Minsky once dismissed consciousness as an imperfect summary of what is going on in the brain; but he failed to recognize that there must be an evolutionary advantage in having this summary.)  We have feelings like pain to motivate us, when it would be absurd (even if possible) to use pain or any other feelings to motivate a computer, or any other performer of unconscious algorithms.

It is true that good ideas come to us as a result of unconscious processes, but we do not adopt these ideas without conscious appraisal.  And while Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and others have shown[5] that our plausible reasoning is affected by unconscious biases, these biases can be addressed and their effect minimised only by careful conscious appreciation of them.

  So although there is no doubt that unconscious processes play an indispensable role in our decision-making, there are very strong reasons for holding that part of that role is to give rise to conscious experiences which also contribute positively to decision-making.

Also, the contrary view is not supportable.  If we couldn’t rely on our plausible reasoning as the conscious non-algorithmic process it seems to be, then any confidence we could have in plausible reasoning would have to depend on the belief that it is supported by computational processes whose reliability is assured by the evolutionary tests they have passed; yet this belief would itself have to depend on extensive plausible reasoning, giving rise to a vicious circle.[6]  Conscious appraisal could not then be trusted to deal with unconscious biases.  And disagreements in matters of plausible reasoning could not then be addressed rationally:  so long as identifiable fallacies were avoided, there could be no basis on which one process of plausible reasoning would be preferable to another.

(5)  If plausible reasoning proceeded precisely as determined by rules of any kind, there could be no positive role for a person’s conscious experiences in that reasoning. 

          Any conclusion that can be reached by the operation of general rules on existing circumstances can be reached without consciousness:  this seems obvious, and it is confirmed by Alan Turing’s arguments about computation,[7] and by the existence and performance of computers.  Neuroscience itself assumes that the operation of the brain needs no assistance from conscious experiences.  No one has suggested any plausible positive role that conscious experiences could have, if brain processes were precisely determined by rules.

The closest I have found to such a suggestion is that made by Daniel Dennett[8] and others to the effect that, in order for human beings to monitor and communicate some of their own mental processes, evolutionary selection has developed brains able to produce simplified ‘user-friendly’ accounts of these processes, in terms of the existence of an integrated conscious subject or self that has conscious experiences, has goals and purposes, and chooses between available alternatives.  But unless these user-friendly accounts have effects otherwise than as precisely determined by rules, this suggestion too gives no role to conscious experiences as such.

(6)  There can be a positive role for a person’s conscious experiences in plausible reasoning, if that reasoning proceeds otherwise than as precisely determined by rules; namely, by contributing to appropriate decisions through gestalt experiences to which we can respond, even though they are too feature-rich to engage as wholes with general rules.

          My support for this premise is an original argument of mine,[9] which I will briefly summarise here.

I accept that our conscious experiences correspond with physical processes of our brains, and I accept there is accordingly a sense in which any information contained in our experiences must be contained or encoded in those physical processes; but it is important that this information, as experienced consciously by us, is characteristically combined into unified wholes or gestalts.  My suggestion is that, although these gestalts cannot, as wholes, engage with laws or rules of any kind, they may plausibly as wholes make a positive contribution to our decisions, because we can respond to them.

It is characteristic of laws and rules that they apply generally over a range of circumstances, and engage with types or classes of things or features that different circumstances have in common, including variable quantities; so that while laws and rules apply to individual unique circumstances, they engage with features of these circumstances only in so far as each of these features is of a type or class, and/or is a variable quantity.  Thus, the feature-rich gestalts we normally experience, such as gestalts comprehending many features of an observed scene, or of a unique melody, cannot as wholes engage with laws or rules, and they cannot as wholes have effects through engaging with laws or rules.

Consider for example George Gershwin’s melody The Man I Love.  This melody has general and quantitative features in common with other melodies; and these features, being general and quantitative, can engage with general rules, so that the melody can readily be identified by application of computational rules.  No doubt such an appealing melody has constituent features that can push buttons in our emotional make-up that have been established by evolution and environment.  But the way this melody sounds, and even the way some 2- and 4-bar chunks of it sound, is unique to this melody; and an experience of such a unique melody or chunk of melody, as a whole, is an example of what I mean by a gestalt that cannot engage with laws or rules.

When Gershwin was composing the melody, possibilities for how it should proceed must have been thrown up by unconscious processes.  But Gershwin must surely have consciously appraised these possibilities as he composed, in order to decide whether to adopt them or modify them or look for other possibilities; and ultimately he must have consciously appraised the melody itself, in order to decide whether to assent to it as his composition or to refine it further; and I suggest that, in appraising the possibilities and the melody, Gershwin was responding to gestalts of the possibilities and of the melody and/or chunks of it, which because of their uniqueness and feature-richness could not engage as wholes with pre-existing rules of any kind.

Similar comments apply with even greater force in the case of ground-breaking aesthetic creations that depart from existing aesthetic standards, such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

This is the kind of positive contribution that I suggest conscious experiences can make to our plausible reasoning, if that reasoning proceeds otherwise than as precisely determined by rules; and it is in this way that these experiences may be able to have effects beyond those that can be explained in terms of physical processes and laws of nature.  I can’t explain how we can respond to gestalts in ways not determined by rules – this would require a far greater understanding of consciousness than is available at present – but that we can do so is supported by the very fact that we do experience gestalts ‘all-at-once’, and by the other reasons I have given.

(7)  Therefore (probably) human beings can make reasonable decisions that are not determined by pre-decision circumstances and laws of nature.

Those six premises make it reasonable to believe that plausible reasoning enables us to make judgments on the basis of inconclusive reasons, that this reasoning depends in part on experiences grasped as gestalt wholes, and that these experiences can make a contribution to reasonable decision-making that is not random (it is a positive contribution) yet not wholly determined by rules.  I believe this is what gives us free will.


The plausible argument of the first section might have to give way if science were strongly against it.  In this section, I state and support six assertions indicating that science is far more accommodating of free will than is often supposed.

(8)  Locality of causal influences, assumed by Einstein, has been decisively refuted.

A famous article[10] published in 1935 by Einstein and two co-authors argued that quantum mechanics must be incomplete, on the basis of an assumption, supported by relativity theory, that a measurement made on one particle could not affect another particle that was distant from it.  A theorem formulated by John Bell and experiments conducted in the early 1980s by Alain Aspect[11] have decisively refuted that assumption, and have shown that, where particles of matter have interacted and are correlated by that interaction, a measurement made on one of them can affect the other, even though they may be widely separated in space and could not communicate at light speed or less.

(9)  Strict determinism is highly unlikely. 

Although some theorists, such as physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft,[12] have tried to formulate deterministic versions of quantum theory, a theorem devised recently by mathematicians John Conway and Simon Kochen shows that the results of certain measurements performed on correlated particles cannot be fixed in advance (as required for determinism) unless Nature somehow prevents experimenters from making those particular measurements that would disclose contradictions.[13]  Such a conspiracy of Nature is highly improbable, and it would also undermine the scientific method by denying experimenters access to random samples.  Any suggestion that the scientific method supports strict determinism is thus self-refuting.

(10)  The block universe is also highly unlikely. 

Some scientist and philosophers have contended that free will is precluded by the so-called ‘block universe’ suggested by relativity theory, according to which the past and future exist in space-time no less than the present; but this view is equally vulnerable to the Conway/Kochen theorem, and is further undermined by the refutation of locality of causal influences.

Also, it cannot plausibly account for changing conscious experiences.  In a well-known account of the block universe view, Hermann Weyl[14] wrote:

The objective world simply is, it does not happen.  Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling upward along the lifeline of my body, does a section of the world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.

But any reasonable view of consciousness requires a close association between ‘the gaze of consciousness’ and brain events; and the block universe view gives brain events, and thus ‘the gaze of consciousness,’ a tenseless existence in space-time.  If our changing experiences were produced by a gaze of consciousness that moved through space-time, then the gaze must leave, and thus cease to exist at, earlier times as it moves to later times, and must arrive at, and thus come to exist, at those later times; and this is inconsistent with the block universe view.

(11)  The physical sciences can accommodate the existence of unified conscious experiences, corresponding with events in widely separated regions of the brain, having effects, not determined by rules, in one of those regions.

          This follows from assertions (8), (9) and (10).  It means that conscious experiences could be efficacious despite the absence of any localised headquarters in the brain where consciousness occurs; so that Daniel Dennett’s arguments against the existence of a localised ‘Cartesian theatre’ are not to the point.

(12)  Neuroscience does not exclude the existence of such effects.

          It is true that current neuroscience does not suggest that unified conscious experiences can have effects on brain processes, and does tend to suggest that indeterminism associated with quantum physics occurs at too small a scale to accommodate such effects.  But this is precisely why neuroscience fails to account for or accommodate conscious experiences, and the understandable tendency of neuroscientists to minimise the significance of what they do not understand (that is, consciousness) is indicative of limitations of current neuroscience rather than inefficacy of conscious experiences.

          Experimental results of Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner[15] have been claimed as refuting the efficacy of conscious experiences, the former showing that unconscious processes precede some conscious decisions, and the latter showing that people sometimes claim to have made decisions in circumstances where no decision could have been made; but these results do no more than show that unconscious preparation is needed before there can be conscious decision-making, and that we can make mistakes about our own mental processes.  As suggested by assertions (1) to (4), Libet and Wegner must themselves have relied heavily on their own conscious reasoning in reaching their results.

(13)  Accordingly, science can accommodate free will.


Responsibility has been challenged by Galen Strawson’s ‘luck swallows everything’ argument:[16] we do what we do because of the way we are, so we can’t be responsible for what we do unless we are responsible for the way we are; and we can’t be responsible for the way we are when we first make decisions in life (that must be all down to genes and environment), so we can never become responsible (through earlier decisions) for the way we are later in life.  The following five assertions answer this argument.

(14)  Our formed characters, our circumstances and laws of nature restrict the alternatives available to us, determine consciously-held reasons on the basis of which we decide between these alternatives, and also determine some unconscious tendencies.

          Any reasonable view of how the physical world works must accept that physical circumstances and laws of nature constrain what can happen, at least to within a spectrum of possibilities.  And it is reasonable to believe that conscious experiences and unconscious behavioural tendencies are caused by and correspond with physical processes of our brains.

(15)  However, because our decisions are made in part in response to gestalts that cannot engage with rules, we have the capacity to make decisions that are not wholly determined by the engagement of laws of nature with our formed characters and our circumstances.

          This follows from the argument of part I.

 (16)  Thus, the sense in which it is true that we do what we do because of the way we are is that (a) the way we are plus our circumstances plus laws of nature provide alternatives, inconclusive reasons, and unconscious tendencies, and also the capacity to decide between the alternatives on the basis of the reasons; and (b) what we do is what we decide in exercise of that capacity.

          This adapts assertions (14) and (15) to the wording of Strawsons’s argument.

(17)  That leaves us at least partly responsible for what we do, even if we were not responsible for the way we are.

          The constraining effect of the way we are is limited to determining alternatives, reasons and unconscious tendencies.  Subject to that, our decisions are not constrained by any distinguishing features of the way we are, and to this extent we are truly responsible for them.

(18)  We do become partly responsible for the way we are, as our decisions, for which we are partly responsible, come to supplement the effects of genes and environment on the way we are.

          There is no doubt that we can train ourselves to have capacities and capabilities, and that (more generally) our decisions and actions can affect our characters.  Thus, while our genes and early environment enormously affect the way we are, decisions and actions for which we are partly responsible can also do so.

Life is a handicap event, but most of us have some capacity to modify our handicaps and, within limits, to make our own luck and to shape our own lives.  And while the criminal law should take full account of what science can tell us about genetic and environmental influences on character and conduct, the law should not abandon the notion of criminal responsibility, which protects the innocent from coercion by the State, as well as informing what can fairly be imposed on the guilty.


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[1]   David Hodgson is the author of two philosophical books published by Oxford University Press, Consequences of Utilitarianism (1967) and The Mind Matters (1991), and of numerous published philosophical articles, including the entry on free will in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science; and he is a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.  A selection of his published philosophical articles can be found at http://users.tpg.com.au/raeda.


[2]  For example, J. Rosen ‘The brain on the stand’, New York Times Magazine, 11 March 2007.


[3]   Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 174-200.


[4]  Cf. D. Hodgson, ‘Hume’s mistake’, in B. Libet, A. Freeman and K. Sutherland (eds) The Volitional Brain (Thorverton: Imprint Academic, 1999) and J. Searle, Rationality in Action (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2001).


[5]   Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., and Tversky, A. (eds) (1982), Judgement under Uncertainty:  Heuristics and Biases (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press).


[6]   T. Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Ch. 7; A. Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Ch. 12


[7]  ‘On computable numbers with an application to the entscheidungsproblem’ (1937) Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, 42, 230-65; ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’ (1958) Mind, 59, 433-60.


[8]  Freedom Evolves (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 242-55.


[9]  My gestalt argument, introduced in my article ‘Constraint, empowerment, and guidance’, (2001) Philosophy, 76, 341-70; and developed in my articles ‘Three tricks of consciousness’, (2002) Journal of Consciousness Studies, 9, 65-88 and  ‘Making our own luck’, (2007) Ratio forthcoming.


[10]  ‘Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?’ (1935) Physical Review, 47, 777 – 780.


[11]  A. Aspect, J. Dalibard and G. Roger, ‘Experimental test of Bell’s inequalities using time-varying analyzers’ (1982) Physical Review Letters, 49, 1804-7.


[12]  ‘How does God play dice?’ (2001) arXiv:hep-th/0104219v1; ‘On the free-will postulate in quantum mechanics’, (2007) arXiv:quant-ph/0701016v1.


[13]  ‘The free will theorem’, (2006) Foundations of Physics, 36, 1441, arXiv:quant-ph/0604079v1; ‘Reply to comments’, (2007) arXiv:quant-ph/0701097v1; cf. R. Tumulka, ‘Comment on “the free will theorem”’, (2006) arXiv:quant-ph/0611283v2


[14]  Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), 116.


[15]  B. Libet, C. Gleason, W. Wright, and D. Pearl, ‘Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activities (readiness potential): the unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act’, (1983) Brain, 106, 623-42; D. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge MA: MIT, 2002).


[16]  See ‘Luck swallows everything’, Times Literary Supplement, 26 June 1998, 8-10, and ‘The bounds of freedom’ in R. Kane (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).