I have been thinking on the differentiations between animal and man and it has yielded all but one viable point of divergence.

That point is free will. Not free will in it's typical chemically and mathematically deterministic sense but rather the free will that lets man become free of his biological circumstances. A man can make a "irrational" decision and animals can only make "rational" decisions. (that relies on the contingency that the animal is aware of the most rational decision it can make according to it's genetic nature.)

I also feel it proper to use the term bio-logic in a alternative manner to which it is conventionally used. Instead of biologic meaning in relation to the study of life, I am saying bio (meaning life) - logic (meaning the logic of life.) This term is intended to encapsulate the explicit mental calculations that animals make in order to survive. This includes where to go to feed, how to act in order not to get eaten, but also how to act in order to find a mate. (something that is in the interest of the greater species, an interesting point of conjecture that a primal animal would be presumed to act selfish and yet somehow it has been endowed with a chemical incentive (two really) for it to procreate and reproduce. This makes one laugh at the perfect irony of a perfectly Nietzchean paradox in the animal kingdom.)

Animals make all of their decisions in attempt to survive and keep their family alive. Humans make irrational decisions all of the time, not just the humans with chemical imbalance who take a knife to their children or perhaps themselves, but the everyday man that chooses to do some minute and banal irrationality.

To illustrate, if you were to train a dog to hit itself the dog would most likely fight you or run away. The reaction would be uniform among most animals (or at least my puerile worldview tells me it would be.) But you, the person reading this right now, have the ability to slap yourself across the face, risking scratching out an eye and dying to blood loss, or causing a blood clot in your brain leading you to seize. You can do that right now despite the egregious irrationality the act purports.

This lead me to a couple of questions that I cannot answer myself and would like help with:

First, when and how did the biological free will evolve? What external stimuli caused this evolution? (some sources suggest that unpredictable movement allow for early humans to evade predators) Am I making a fallacious contention claiming that animals cannot act irrationally? Also does anyone know of the first recorded study or research on suicide? Much thanks to any who take the time to answer, and please forgive me for any naivete or logical errors I am only a freshman in high school and my knowledge thus far is all but minimal.

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    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 27, 2023 at 8:10
  • Animals have been known to engage in self harm when under psychological stress. Suicide is basically the logical extension of this response to psychological stress. I don’t think this behavior in humans or animals is the best starting point for characterization of free will. Nor is mistreatment of offspring, which both humans and animals do at times. Free will is best understood as the core principle of agency and is applied when one has a lot of openness in one’s decision constraints. The rational/ irrational dichotomy is not really relevant to agency.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 27, 2023 at 18:22
  • I recommend reading Plessner's Levels of the Organic Life and the Human since it actually is known for a long time that animals are a lot more capable of degrees of "free will", "irrationality", and "intelligence" than you make them. For the human organism and its evolutionary niche, maybe what you call "irrational" is actually fully within natural parameters?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 27, 2023 at 21:18
  • " animals can only make "rational" decisions" I guess you've never owned a dog :-)
    – D. Halsey
    Dec 28, 2023 at 1:31
  • Freud argues the ego is the part of man or animal which makes efforts to govern action. The newborn ego is a blank slate with no knowledge of the external world (reality) or of its biological inner drives (id). Id drives the ego to meet its biological needs including the desire to become happy in the world and avoid suffering. The newborn ego is weak compared to the id and reality. Nature threatens the human ego with destruction from inside or outside forces. A prudent (rational) ego would strive to love, because love makes us happy, and to work in cooperation with others against natural harm. Dec 28, 2023 at 18:50

5 Answers 5


Free will is an aspect of consciousness. Free will has depth in meaning. Free will can range from no free will to little free will to complete free will. Free will is impermanent. It arises , changes and vanishes. This means you can not have complete free will always. Neither the free will can be absent forever. For example - If I offer you the choice of coffee or tea , which one will you choose? You may choose tea because you hate coffee. You may choose coffee because your boyfriend or girlfriend loves coffee. You may reject both because you think it is not a proper etiquette. You may choose spontaneously for no reason. You may choose ,irrationally ,by asking for cold drink in winters. You may choose tea or coffee by rolling a dice(this is the true random choice). You can loose free will if you are being guided by your Boss and if Boss asks you to choose tea then you have no choice but to take tea.

Free will is not only the choice of tea or coffee but also the choice of reason. You can choose your own reasons for making a choice.

Free will is also an aspect of life. Anything without free will can be deemed to be without life. Animals and humans and possibly all life have varying degrees of free will. Free will did not necessarily evolve from no free will to greater free will. In fact it is possible that free will was greater in the past than present , for example , God in the past had the choice of lighting up the world. Those who are civilised have lesser degrees of free will than uncivilised in terms of choice of reason.

Free will also has strength. Some people who make choices have greater power than others. This is called grit and determination.


Are animals rational?

Rather than say that (other) animals are rational all the time, I might say animals have no sense of rationality*, or they're at least more irrational than rational.

Rationality is commonly thought of as using higher-level reasoning to come to conclusions. Irrationality is when we do something instinctively or based on emotion or flawed reasoning.

Animals seem to be mostly instinct, i.e. irrational (although it's hard / impossible to know exactly what's going on in the head of an animal, and animals have certainly demonstrated problem-solving ability).

Animals don't make decisions in a (conscious) attempt to survive, as much as making those decisions was necessary for survival. It's a subtle distinction, but hopefully this example illustrates the difference: if I avoid light because it's too bright, and things in the light get eaten, I'd have a survival advantage, but that's not me making an attempt to survive. Animals merely follow what's written into their biology.


"You have the ability to slap yourself across the face" - do you? I could certainly give myself a light tap to try to prove a point. But I have too strong of a self-preservation instinct to intentionally do something that would cause myself serious harm. For me to say I'm able to make that choice is questionable (except in the sense that there's nothing external to myself stopping me from doing so, but my biology isn't external).

There are of course people without such a strong self-preservation instinct, or where that is overridden by other factors.

"If you were to train a dog to hit itself the dog would most likely fight you or run away" - if you were to try to train a human to hit itself, the human would most likely fight you or run away (although some level of trust or fear may prevent them from doing so).

What are we talking about, anyway?

You ask about "free will", but we might reasonably ask what exactly that term even means. It's nice to think that we can because free of our biological circumstances, but how would that work, why do you believe that to be the case, and what would our actions be influenced by then?

We could similarly ask what exactly "conscious" or "rational" / "higher-level reasoning" means. If a crow places rocks in water to raise its level, is that any less rational than a human consciously doing the same? How can we be sure that there is a functional difference?

Eliminativists may argue that some or all of these concepts are poorly defined and should be discarded (or at least there isn't a clear boundary for when these things are the case, and when they aren't).

So... evolution?

Without the above concepts, the evolution of our behaviour is relatively straight-forward (on a high level, even if there's a lot of complexity on lower levels): our behaviour is a result of neurons firing, and those neurons formed and fire the way they do because of mutations that provided a survival advantage (like the evolution of any other physical trait). There would be no point at which "free will" evolved, if "free will" isn't a thing.

  • Thank you for the in depth and highly evaluative and comprehensive answer. Some notes and thoughts I had while reading your exceedingly elegant critique. First, you have caught me at an error. The issue with language is the unintended connotations an ambiguous term and/ or term misuse can evoke. A revision might suggest that rather then rationality and its reciprocal I am referring to logicality and its reciprocal. That is tied into the term above where I redefine biologic to intimate bio-logic, a subconscious perhaps, genetic aversety to pain and death. Nov 27, 2023 at 21:23
  • On the self harm point I agree the scenario was too absurd for a practical thought experiment, but it was so in hopes of avoiding too personal and/or controversial of a query. I may change such an idea to be, you can, if your emotions and mind so dictates, end your own life. While I suggest this to all readers as a terrible and wrong way of solving an issue, you are materially capable of such an act. I question whether animals are capable of this same blunder? Nov 27, 2023 at 21:23
  • I also hold the idea of free will closely and will defend it passionately because as you said it is difficult to evaluate such a premise and one can choose what they believe. Nov 27, 2023 at 21:23
  • @JasperGould "you can, if your emotions and mind so dictates, end your own life" - that part in the middle is the issue, and we'd say that is determined by your biology and environment, and there's no possibility that you don't do what is determined by those things. Emotions are easy to see that we can't directly control: emotions come whether you want them or not, and you can't just immediately stop feeling a certain way. You can do something to change your emotional state over time, but your decision to do that would be partially determined by that emotion in the first place.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 29, 2023 at 1:26
  • @JasperGould Compatibilists would say that even though/if our actions are fully determined by our biology and environment, that is still free will. But most people who argue for (or against) free will are talking about a non-deterministic will (libertianism). Whether animals can commit suicide is unclear. And I might've said the same about animals and logic as I did about animals and rationality.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 29, 2023 at 1:26

Irrational behaviour means behaving against or regardless of your instincts, plans or preferences. Irrational behaviour means that you are not acting in your own best interest, something is wrong with you.

Sometimes people may seem to act irrationally, but in reality they are doing it for a purpose like entertainment or artistic expression. Sometimes animals seem to behave irrationally, but in reality they are in a situation for which there is no applicable instinctual response, but they need to do something.

Irrational is not the same as spontaneous. Spontaneous behaviour is useful in evading predators and finding new useful things like food, shelter or mates.

Animal instincts are immediate "pre-programmed" responses to changes in the environment. Free will means the ability to plan ahead and consider alternative courses of actions for serving ones's needs and desires. Freely willed actions are not "pre-programmed" responses. Instead, they are "self-programmed" responses to past events and attempts to make the future more aligned with your preferences.

  • Thanks for the answer. My one point of contention would be that irrational behaviour implies something is wrong with you. I would contend that being irrational and unpredictable is the most human thing one can do. Nietzche argued that once man becomes calculable he has been tamed and domesticated. I would posit that the predictability of mans actions is a gauge for how human they are being. We have been endowed with free will why not use it? Nov 27, 2023 at 6:10

I'd draw the distinction that man is only capable of irrational action if the individual person is aware of this possibility, which requires esoteric knowledge. Most people, however, are not aware that they can act irrationally, and therefore aren't free under your definition of free will.

I would argue that the evolution of complex language makes free action a possibility, but only individuals who are intelligent / creative enough to stumble on this knowledge are actually able to exercise the possibility.


Sigmund Freud describes the biological ego, in essence, as the effort to govern action in the sensory context. Man and animal both express this biological effort; man contemplates this effort consciously; and man infers that other humans and animals possess a biological ego as an attribute of their bodies. The formation of an identity, in the context of ego effort, is a separate yet related concern for social science.

Hugh Gibbons, my professor for Legal Philosophy, describes the will of each person using a sentence: I am the cause of desired perceptions. A perception arises in the cognitive context. If the effort to govern action, the biological ego, forms a conscious desire and intention to cause the same or different perception, then this is the experience of human will. So according to Gibbons, in the context of ego psychology, the will is the experience of an intention to change perception and the effectiveness of the effort to change perception.

The will of man or animal is either effective or ineffective in the sensory context. When the will is effective then it also seems to be free of internal and external constraints. When the will is ineffective then something internal or external to the ego seems to impede or interfere with the experience and expression of will. Freud argues that the biological inner drives and external reality are independent forces that the ego takes as external from itself.

Prudence is defined as the ability to govern action by the use of reason. I define reason, in this context, as the mature human ability to anticipate the consequences of actions in the sensory context. This is not about scientific cause and effect; although that skill is very helpful; it is about anticipating the actions and reactions of other humans and animals in the context of mutual internal drama.

According to Hugh Gibbons, the law in the United States is about the experience and expression of human drama with a central value that the will should be used to benefit self and others under rules of law. In this system he says, "The will of each person is worthy of respect."

Another human value competes with the effort to respect the will of each person. Authoritarianism (I call it The Battle for Superego Domination) does not respect the will of each person. The sadistic superego requires strict adherence to codes of behavior under the cloak of superior authority. Authoritarianism is the sadistic expression of The Will to Power.

The biological ego of humans seems to value prudence in the self and others. An effective ego can desire to benefit or harm others; and we often judge prudence to be an ego that benefits both self and others; we form adverse moral judgments when an ego causes intentional harm to self or others; and there are exceptions to the moral rules of prudent behavior. We label persons who intend harm as mentally ill or criminal or evil, etc.

A rational or irrational action translates into a human moral judgment, passed on the actions of the self or other humans (but not so much passed on the behavior of animals), as to whether the action is based on the ability to anticipate or plan consequences in the human social context or when a human interacts with non-human attributes of reality.

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