My 16-to-21-year-old self was very preoccupied with free will. When I was 21 years old I rejected the notion as ill-defined as both my reason and my inner experience told me that my will was caused and had to be caused. I thought that people who believed that their will was free had to accept the existence of a bubble around themselves, protecting them from cause and effect. I said to myself, "If my will were free, it would be able to decide to will some things and not to will other things. For that, there would have to be a meta-will, willing to decide to will some things and not to will other things. That would make my will bound by the meta-will, so for it to be free they would both have to be one. And one with the further meta-wills." I found that to contradict my inner experience. I later found that Spinoza argued against free will in a similar manner. (At least, that's how I understood what I read from him.)

If I remember correctly, I settled on telling myself that the adjective "free" simply made no sense next to the noun "will". I decided that will did not make any decisions so it couldn't be called free at all.

I am not preoccupied with free will now, I'm not a teenager, I'm hopefully done with the mental torment these questions (and lots of other things) caused me, and my inner experience has changed very much. I'm actually not sure what I think about free will now and I see some weak points in my younger-self's arguments. And I'm curious to read what people have thought about this. And since I found Spinoza's arguments strikingly close to what I thought and felt, I would like to know how people have countered them.

  • This is obviously personal, but hopefully it makes enough sense to be a reasonable question. Please let me know if that is not the case.
    – ymar
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 2:13
  • Just wanted to echo that your short history is very similar to mine. I came to the conclusion that most discussions about free will were meaningless, because the concept is ill-defined. There is a decision-making mechanism in the brain, obviously (which I think is a mathematical chaotic system), but 'free will' is as sloppy a term as something like 'vital essence' Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 17:09
  • Your choice of framing it purely in terms of Spinoza's philosophy with a backdrop of personal philosophy should be more than sufficient to clear the "no personal philosophy" rule.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 1:09
  • Spinoza said "people think they are free because they ignore the reasons that determines them". Which I personally link to Freud's "es" in "ich, es, uberich". The "es" always wins. But I think he was talking about determinism or the physical reasons behind why we behave like we do.
    – v.oddou
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 6:30
  • Important question and one that reonates with many of us.
    – user37981
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 14:12

1 Answer 1


The meta-argument you attribute to Spinoza is closely related to the rule-following regress considered by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. To apply a rule in a particular situation we first have to interpret what it means, he muses. But then we need another rule to make the interpretation, and another, and another. We can no more apply a rule, it seems, than a runner can start running in Zeno's Dichotomy. Nonetheless, we do manage to follow rules, we read, we write, we play chess (and runners do run). Therefore, concludes Wittgenstein, "there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation".

Similarly, there is a way to "grasp" the willing without "an act of will". The meta-argument is based on the so-called volitionist theory of action, usually traced back to Descartes, and accepted by Spinoza, Leibniz, etc., before Kant. It is not an argument against free will, but one of many arguments against that theory. As confirmed by psychological studies, we do not first perform an act of will, which then causes us to do something, we just do it, willingly. This is reflected in the language, rather than say "I willed my hand to rise, and it rose" we say "I raised my hand".

Hacker's Human Nature places the theory of volition in the conceptual context of modern philosophy and science. He summarizes Wittgenstein's response to the meta-argument (Wittgenstein was influenced by Schopenhauer on the will issue) as follows (pp. 148-152):

"When one utters a sentence, every word is spoken voluntarily, but it would be ridiculous to claim that one consciously performs successive acts of will, one for each word (or phoneme?) an instant before utterance... The willing must not be conceived as doing something, the doing of which then causes the movement of one’s body. That would be a case of bringing about the movement of one’s body by doing something else. Rather, the willing would have to be an ‘immediate causing’".

The law of cause and effect, a.k.a. the principle of sufficient reason, is another postulate of traditional metaphysics, once considered impeccable but controversial today. Belief in it leads to determinism, which unlike the volitionist theory is coherent if implausible. The traditional arguments for it often confuse causes with reasons, and reasons with necessities. Philosophers started broadly questioning it after Kant, who limited it to "phenomena". According to the standard interpretations of modern physics, determinism is false, there are effects that have no causes, or are self-caused depending on terminology. Physics itself however, as empirical science, can not settle metaphysical matters. There has been a burst of interest in free will in light of recent neuroscience experiments designed to test "folk intuitions" about it. Roskies surveys their results in How Does Neuroscience Affect Our Conception of Volition?, and concludes that "to date no results have succeeded in fundamentally disrupting our commonsensical beliefs".

The modern consensus is that libertarian free will, as it is called, is coherent and unfalsifiable, but so is determinism, and the two are incompatible (there is also compatibilism which redefines the meaning of "free" in "free will"). So we have a choice to believe or to disbelieve it. As William James put it, "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will". Information Philosopher gives a nice overview of historical and current views on free will.

  • "According to the standard interpretations of modern physics determinism is false" would love a link on why that is. I studied physics a lot in prep school but my impressions after it, were that everything seemed to point to determinism=yes. maybe i just didnt go far enough.
    – v.oddou
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 6:36
  • 1
    @v.oddou See a survey here plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/#StaDetPhyThe If you mostly dealt with classical physics (mechanics, electromagnetism) then it is not surprising, indeterministic interpretations are possible but unconventional, however in quantum theory and general relativity the mathematical formalism is usually interpreted as indeterministic, and deterministic interpretations would require either altering it in one way or another, or redefining what "determinism" means (as in Everett's Many Worlds).
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 20:45
  • There is a strong possibility that physics is non-deterministic on a fundamental level, but what replaces it is randomness, which behaves very different than what most philosophers mean by free will. "Free will" seems to imply neither determinism nor randomness, which is one of the reasons I think it's ill-defined. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 16:50
  • @kbelder I agree that indeterminism is only necessary for free will, not sufficient. But "randomness" is equally vague. If it means classical randomness then we know from Bell inequalities that it does not exhaust negation of determinism, quantum entanglement is indeterministic and non-classical, nor does it decompose into something deterministic and classically random. In the end, I think free will is a very complex notion that is not exhausted by its indeterministic aspects, it clearly involves some element of control, but us not having a theory of it yet doesn't mean it is ill-defined.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 21:37
  • 1
    Great insight in your question. For Spinoza; desire, emotion, thought and will are inseparable; to want is to feel is to think is to act. They act spontaneously-in-act and involuntarily. For detail on this, if you wish, visit charlessaunders5.academia.edu, and download for free; Spinoza's Hidden Discovery- An Investigation into Spinoza's Ethics Part Two- On the Origin and Nature of the Mind. In the Ethics see Part Two Propositions 48-49 on 'free will' and 'volition' and 'causality' respectively. @Ymar, CS
    – user37981
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 14:31

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