Free Will

Free Will: A Compatibilist's View


Free will, do we have it? If we were to ask this question to average believer in God, chances are we would come away with a unanimous, or near unanimous, yes. However, amongst others the answers are more divided. There are those that declare that we do not make our own conscious choices, that free will is an illusion, and other similar answers. There is also the idea of ‘compatibilism’, which argues that we exist in a state of both determinism and free will. This discussion hopes to explore the idea of ‘compatibilism’, and explain why it is a reasonable stance to adopt. Before beginning this discussion we should first define what we mean when we use the term ‘free will’.

Defining Free Will

When the average believer speaks of ‘free will’ they speak of an individual being able to make conscious choices out of independent agency. In other words, choices that come from their own consciousness and are not forced by another being of agency. It speaks nothing of the range of choices available, which could be as few as two options. So long as the individual is allowed to choose consciously and freely out of the two options, then this is considered ‘free will’. This seems like a reasonable definition, and one that this discussion will use. This discussion will consider ‘free will’ to be ‘the ability of an individual agent to freely and consciously make a choice or decision, without being threatened or forced by another individual with agency’. Here using the word ‘agency’ in the philosophical and sociological manner which refers to an entity’s capacity to act in any given environment (Wikipedia, 2016).

Absolute Freedom of Choice

There are those who raise the objection that because we do not have absolute freedom of choice in every aspect of our lives, including where we are born, our sex, the colour of our skin, whether we are born or not, and other similar claims, that therefore ‘free will’ does not exist. However, this is something of an absurd objection. Most importantly, this is a straw man of what is actually proposed when addressing the idea of ‘free will’. Those who argue for ‘free will’ are not claiming that we have absolute freedom in every matter in our lives, only that we have conscious agency, and can make conscious choices in given situations. It is also absurd as there is nothing that can live up to this standard. Even the god proposed as existent by believers cannot meet this standard, nor could any being be logically proposed that could meet this standard. It is a self-negating standard.

It is also a standard that we do not hold for other things when we speak of them being ‘free’. When we speak of a bird being ‘free’, we do not call it such because it has the ability to fly anywhere in the universe, or the ability to create another universe or end the universe we exist in. We describe the bird as ‘free’ because it is not caged, we describe it as ‘free’ because it is not in the possession of another agent. Similarly, when we speak of a country being ‘free’, we do not title it as such because the people in it are able to rob, and rape, and murder, with impunity. Countries that we describe as ‘free’ still bind their citizens by certain laws. We describe a country as ‘free’ because it is not run by tyrants. As with the bird, we only hold it to a certain level of freedom in order to declare it ‘free’.

Therefore it seems somewhat reasonable to suggest that we can define things as ‘free’ even if there are certain limitations or laws that are imposed upon these things that we describe as ‘free’. Let us return to our example of the bird described as ‘free’. The bird is described as ‘free’ even though it has limits imposed upon it by its very existence. It is limited by its biology, and by its physical existence as a being in space and time. This means that it is not unreasonable to define will as being ‘free’, even though it has certain limitations imposed upon it by the very nature of our own existence as physical and biological beings, who exist in space and time. This seems far more reasonable than holding it to an impossible standard that nothing could achieve. We are also then defining it according to reality, rather than attempting to define reality according to particular standards. The question then is not ‘can we choose to do anything we wish’, but instead the more realistic question ‘can we make our own conscious and cognizant choices within the limits of our own existence?’.

The Limitations of the Brain

The brain with all of its complexities is responsible for much of what our body does. It is responsible for regulating our organs, our nervous system, receiving and processing sensations from the external world, our thoughts, and much more. Without our brain we would simply cease to be. It is therefore no shock to learn that our brain is an energy hungry organ, that alone accounts for around 20% of our bodies energy (, 2012) . However, for all of its complexity, and awe inspiring functionalities, it is considered to be a ‘limited capacity processor’ (Kahneman in Edgar, 2007, p11). In order to explain and understand what this means, along with exploring whether we can make conscious choices, we must turn to psychology and neuroscience, and to the metaphors, experiments, explanations and conclusions that these fields put forward.

Neuroscience and psychology are the best fields to look for answers to these kinds of questions because, of course, they are the fields devoted to studying the workings of the brain and the mind. They offer us the greatest amount of information and supporting evidence for any arguments that we may put forward regarding the workings of the brain and the mind. Neuroscience tends to look at the brain in terms of ‘information processing’, and to make things more relatable and understandable, uses metaphors that liken the brain to computers. Hence terms such as ‘limited capacity processor’. So what do we mean when we call the brain a ‘limited capacity processor’?

A Limited Capacity Processor

The idea that the brain contains a ‘limited capacity central processor’ was put forward in a theory by Kahneman in 1973. There are other theories that put forward the idea that there are ‘multiple cores’ that handle the processing, such as that proposed by Navon and Gopher in 1979 (Edgar, 2007, p14). However, all theories agree that the brain is a ‘limited capacity processor’. This simply means that the brain does not have an unlimited capacity in the way it processes information coming in from the senses, nor unlimited capacity when dealing with our own consciousness, thoughts and behaviours. For the brain not only needs to deal with our consciousness, and our mind, and our thoughts, but it must deal with the regulation of our bodies, and internal organs, and nervous system, and much more.

In order to function efficiently, and to save energy costs, our brain runs on what are known as ‘automatic’ and ‘controlled’ processes. That is to say, our brain allows for consciously controlled processes (controlled) as well as sub-consciously controlled processes (automatic). Some of those automatic processes are obvious, being things like regulation of the heart, the lungs, and other internal organs. However, some automatic processes began their lives as controlled processes. Things such as speaking, reading, walking, and other tasks that we have performed repetitively through our lives. In order to see this in effect, and to see that there is indeed a separation of the two processes, and that the automatic can and does interfere with the controlled, let us examine something known as ‘The Stroop Effect’.

The Stroop Effect

‘The Stroop Effect’ was first proposed by John Ridley Stroop in 1935, who created an experiment known in psychology as ‘The Stroop Test’ (Edgar, 2007, p21). ‘The Stroop Test’ is a very simple one, and many may have taken it without actually knowing that this is its title. The test involves a list of words. Each word printed in a different colour ink, with the word itself describing either a colour, or a non-colour related word. The list usually contains around 20 to 30 words. The participant is then asked to go through the list and describe the colour of the ink of each word.

At face value, the test sounds and seems to be relatively simple and easy. If the brain functions simply as simple input and output way, the task is simple. For we simply input that we want to describe the colour of the text, and the brain outputs the colour of the text. However, it is trickier than it sounds. For the participant usually hits a problem when the word describes a colour. The brain’s automated process interferes with the controlled process of describing the ink colour, and it does this by putting the word itself into the participants mind, slowing the process down. The brain automatically attempts to read the word, and we must consciously correct this. We become aware of our mistake, and we must consciously correct it. If we are not paying attention we will mistakenly read out the word itself, rather than describe the colour of the ink. Showing a clear separation of controlled and automatic processes.

If the brain simply took in input and then gave the relevant output, then we should not see this ‘glitch’ and we would have no need to consciously correct the output, and if we had no control over own processes then we should not be able to consciously correct it. This shows that we do have some control over our brain’s processing, and it shows that we have conscious awareness of some of the controlled processes that our brain outputs to our consciousness. We are able to tell our sub-conscious what we desire to do, and validate what it returns to us. Think now of many examples in our lives in which we do similar.

Practice Makes Perfect

Think now of the many things we learn through our lives, such as language, reading, walking, riding a bike, playing a guitar, skating or skateboarding, martial arts and other similar tasks. These things come easier to some than others, however, we all go through a period of training. We all must learn how to make particular sounds, or balance our bodies, or configure our fingers or bodies. These things take practice. Take the example of playing the guitar. When we read the configuration our fingers must be in on the fret board, our fingers do not automatically assume these positions on the fret board when we play. We must consciously and mindfully move our fingers into these configurations when we begin to learn. It is only after much practice that these things become automatic processes. It is the same for any task we learn. We must do the task mindfully and consciously, until it becomes ‘second nature’; and once it becomes ‘second nature’ we are still capable of making mistakes, and becoming consciously aware of those mistakes as well as consciously correcting those mistakes. When we practice a task and become aware of our mistakes, we are also able to choose to continue on, disregarding the error, or stop and fix the error. We can choose to fix the error immediately, or go back and fix the error later.


Theories of attention suggest that we also have some control over our attention and what we attend to. There are automatic attention processes of course, for sounds and sights may grab our attention without our control. However, we can also focus our attention consciously. Take an optical illusion for example. When we first observe the illusion, our attention is drawn to a particular aspect of the illusion. However, we can also then examine the illusion in detail at will. If we use the example of the common illusion of two faces and a vase, where both sides of the image are faces and which cause the shape of a vase in the middle. Upon our first examination of the image we see whichever aspect of the illusion our mind is first drawn to, but afterwards we can consciously choose to attempt to see the other side of the illusion (Edgar, 2007, p6). The same can be said for listening to a piece of music. When we are listening to music our attention may be drawn to a particular aspect of the piece, such as the drums, the bassline, the guitars, and so forth, or the whole piece in general. However, we can choose to focus our attention on various aspects of the piece as well. We do have some control over what our consciousness attends to.

Optical Illusion


Which leads us back to discussion about controlled and automatic processes, along with ‘the Stroop effect’. Recent studies have made use of neural imaging techniques while participants have been involved in taking ‘the Stroop test’. The neural imaging has shown that while performing ‘the Stroop test’ there two areas of the brain have been identified as being responsible for performing the tasks. These are the Dorsolateral Pre-frontal Cortex (DLPFC) and the Anterior Congulate Cortex (ACC). In order to attempt to identify each parts role in cognitive processing further tests, based upon ‘the Stroop test’, were created. Results from these experiments showed that it was highly probable that the Pre-Frontal Cortex was responsible for attention, and showed increased activity during the controlled processes, whereas the Anterior Congulate Cortex was responsible for the automated processes. Further studies and experimentation has shown that the DLPFC becomes more active the more attention is paid, and those that showed greater activity in the DLPFC tended to perform better during ‘the Stroop test’ and suffer less from ‘the Stroop effect’ (Edgar, 2007, p23).


This is not to say of course that there is not a high level of determinism going on. The situations we are in and the knowledge we have determine the choices available to us, the state of our mind determines how clearly we can make those choices, our emotional states and our desires are determined by biology. However, as can be seen from findings in psychology and neuroscience, and those mentioned in this discussion only scratch the surface, we do seem able to make conscious choices, and perform conscious acts. We are in control of some of our cognitive processes. Neuroscientists in Germany recently performed experiments that led them to the conclusion that we have more free will than was believed before (Science of Us, 2016) .

This means that it may not be as unreasonable as some believe to think that ‘free will’ does indeed exist, and that ‘compatibilism’ describes the state of affairs closer than strict determinism does. Definition is important of course, and how one defines ‘free will’ makes a difference the acceptance of the claim, just as with any other claim. Questions arise for those who argue against the idea of ‘free will’ of course. Questions such as how do determine the difference between a universe that allows for ‘free will’ and one that does not, how would a universe with ‘free will’ look, and how would we go about testing for the existence of ‘free will’?

References (2012). How does the brain use food as energy? – [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2016].

Edgar, G. (2007), ‘Perception and Attention’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K (eds) Mapping Psychology Book 1 Chapters 6-9. Milton Keynes: Open University, pp. 3-45.

Science of Us. (2016). Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2016].

Wikipedia. (2016). Agency (philosophy). [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Apr. 2016].