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free will

free will, in philosophy, the doctrine that an individual, regardless of forces external to him, can and does choose at least some of his actions. The existence of free will is challenged by determinism. A denial of free will was implicit in Plato's argument that, because no one would deliberately choose a worse over a better course of action, people's decisions are determined by their understanding (or ignorance) of what constitutes the good. Aristotle disagreed; he distinguished between reason and desire, pointing out that people sometimes do what they desire even when they know it will harm themselves or others. Some Stoics sought to adapt the idea of free will to their rigorous form of determinism; Chrysippus emphasized that action could be produced by choice which itself had antecedent causes. In the Christian philosophical tradition a central question regarding freedom of the will was this: is virtue within the power of the individual or completely dependent on the power of God? St. Augustine, although he argued that God's foreknowledge of human actions (a consequence of his omniscience) did not cause them, did hold that God's omnipotent providence implied predestination: man was wholly dependent on divine grace. St. Thomas Aquinas maintained the freedom of man's will in spite of divine omnipotence, holding that God's omnipotence meant he could do all things possible or consistent with his goodness and reason, which did not include the predetermination of human will. William of Occam affirmed free will but claimed it impossible for any human to comprehend how it is compatible with God's foreknowledge and omniscience, which cannot be distinguished from his role as prime mover and original cause. Martin Luther and John Calvin both followed Augustine's doctrine of predestination, but later Protestant writers disputed their position. Advocates of free will have usually begun with the overwhelming testimony of common practice and common sense: people do believe they in some way determine their actions, and hold each other accountable for them. Therefore advocates of free will have argued that the human will, unlike inanimate things, can initiate its own activity. This position has been called into question by experiments, first undertaken by American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, that have shown that brain signals associated with decisions concerning actions occur before a human being is conscious of making a decision.
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free will

the proposition that human beings are able to act according to the dictates of their own will (compare DETERMINISM). Doctrines of free will take a variety of forms, e.g.:
  1. that human beings are morally responsible for their own actions – as in the Protestant world-view;
  2. that they have the capacity to carry out their own projects, and that to behave as if this were not so is to act in ‘bad faith’ (see EXISTENTIALISM);
  3. that they possess a capacity for REFLEXIVITY which is central to an understanding of both the nature of human action and the social construction of reality e.g. modern forms of symbolic interactionist and interpretive sociology, which emphasize human AGENCY.

Some forms of structural sociology and behaviouristic psychology appear to leave no room for ‘free will’, being oriented towards discovering causal explanations of social actions and social structures. However, the identification of actors’ reasons and purposes can provide explanations for the ‘choices’ and ‘decisions’ they make (as in buying goods, or voting). Thus reasons possess causality, even though wider sociological causation is also involved. ‘Causality’ in social events therefore need not preclude ‘free will’ as long as the conception of this is not mystical, i.e. does not imply that human action is exempt from ordinary conceptions of physical and social causality Equally, however, there is no necessity to use the term ‘free will’ in sociology. Most of what can be stated in terms of ‘free will’ can be perfectly well stated, and is arguably better stated, in terms of ‘choice’ or ‘decision’, without recourse to such a potentially misleading term as ‘free will’. Examples might be: in drawing a distinction between situations in which we do not feel under compulsion to act in a certain way, and those where we feel that we have little or no choice; or in drawing attention to social outcomes which might have been different if actors who could have acted differently had done so, and those which appear to have been more structurally determined. See also CAUSALITY AND CAUSAL RELATIONSHIPS, STRUCTURE AND AGENCY, VOLUNTARISM, POWER, RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY, METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM, UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL ACTION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Free Will


a philosophical category that designates the philosophical and ethical problem of whether human actions are self-determined or determined by outside forces—that is, the question of the conditionality of the human will.

Since the Socratic period bitter disputes have centered on the problem of free will, which is of crucial significance because its resolution determines whether man is recognized as responsible for his actions. On the one hand, if all actions are strictly predetermined and inevitable, they cannot be the object of praise or blame. On the other hand, if the human will is viewed as a “final principle” not preconditioned by anything, a break conflicting with the requirements of scientific explanation is introduced into the chain of causality linking phenomena.

The antinomy in the interpretation of free will has given rise to two corresponding philosophical positions: determinism, which asserts that the will is causally determined, and indeterminism, which denies that the will is dependent on causality. Depending on whether a physical or psychological factor is recognized as the cause of volitional acts, it is customary to draw a distinction between mechanistic determinism (for example, the philosophical determinism of Spinoza and Hobbes) and psychological determinism, which is less stringent (for example, T. Lipps). The theories of J. G. Fichte and M. F. Maine de Biran are representative of the most consistent indeterminism.

In the history of philosophy the most common theories of free will are eclectic ones combining opposite positions, such as Kant’s dualism. According to Kant, man, as a rational creature belonging to the intelligible world, possesses free will. In the empirical world, however, where natural necessity prevails, the human being does not have freedom of choice, and the human will is causally determined. Traces of a similar inconsistency are found in the theories of F. W. J. von Schelling, who defined freedom as internal necessity, at the same time recognizing the self-assertive character of the initial act of choice. Hegel proclaimed freedom of will but attributed it not to human beings but to the “world spirit,” which embodies the “pure” concept of free will.

In bourgeois philosophy of the late 19th through early 20th centuries, voluntarist and personalist indeterminism prevailed in the interpretation of free will. The positivist orientation, which avoided the problem, was also popular. Both tendencies are interwoven in the work of some philosophers, including Bergson. Defending freedom of will, Bergson refers to the organic unity of spiritual states that are not readily broken into separate elements and that are not causally determined. W. Windelband argued that volitional acts are sometimes causally determined and sometimes free. The problem of free will is a focal concern of the atheistic existentialists, including J.-P. Sartre and M. Heidegger, who believe that human beings possess an absolute freedom that is counterposed to the external world. Thus, the atheistic existentialists reduce the concept of free will to self-will, or willfulness.

In theistic religious doctrines the problem of free will is posed on the level of human autonomy in relation to god. Thus, the concept of free will, without which a religious ethic is impossible, clashes with the concept of “grace” and unalterable divine predestination. Attempts to resolve the contradictions arising in this regard have produced a variety of contradictory currents in religious philosophy, including Thomism and Molinism in Catholic theology and Calvinism and Arminianism in Protestant theology. In addition to naturalistic determinism and the pagan belief in fate, the main components of fatalism include the extreme religious doctrines of predestination, which make the individual absolutely dependent on supernatural forces or on the divine will.

In Marxist philosophy the dialectic of freedom and necessity serves as the foundation for assessing the problem of free will.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

free will

a. the apparent human ability to make choices that are not externally determined
b. the doctrine that such human freedom of choice is not illusory
c. (as modifier): a free-will decision
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005