I was thinking about free will, and I kind of got confused. What would it look like for someone to not have free will?

For example, if someone was paralyzed, they could still control their thoughts. It seems like the only time someone does not have free will is if they are unconscious and are not dreaming.

Am I missing something? Under what conditions does someone not have free will?

  • I think a healthy, intelligent human being has free will unless they choose or allow their freedom to be stolen from them. In other words if they relinquish it voluntarily.
    – Bread
    Nov 12, 2018 at 21:06
  • The question is not whether one is conscious but whether one has it when conscious, when it appears, on folk view, that one is exercising it. If the free will is understood as the libertarian one, and according to determinists, no one ever has it. According to compatibilists, one can still have it in the absence of external physical compulsion.
    – Conifold
    Nov 12, 2018 at 21:25
  • To answer the question, I'd have to know what "free will" means here. Do you consider that I am using free will to type this comment? Nov 12, 2018 at 21:58
  • @DavidThornley I'm interested in answers for both the libertarian and compatibilist definitions of free will. And I would assume so, assuming you aren't being forced to. Nov 12, 2018 at 22:41
  • 1
    To a compatibilist, you do not act with free will when you act under constraint, coercion or duress. E.g. when somebody is physically forcing your movements, or pointing a gun at your head, or putting drugs in your coffee.
    – Bumble
    Mar 29, 2019 at 19:52

4 Answers 4


For determinists, free will is much more limited then you describe here, if it exists at all. See for example this article from The Atlantic entitled "There’s No Such Thing as Free Will". As our understanding of the brain as a biophysical system advances, we see more and more clearly that free will may simply be an illusion of consciousness. What we experience as decision-making may just be the working through of complex chemical and electrical impulses which were already aligned in advance to come out a certain way. This view would be a specifically biological form of determinism. There can also be, for example, theological forms that see our actions as divinely ordained.


When one would not have free will depends on one's view of free will. I will only consider a few of these positions.

An easy position to consider is hard determinism. For such a person one does not have free will at any time. A naturallist perspective on reality would claim even one's thoughts are reducible to something else, perhaps something in the brain, that determines those thoughts.

A more subtle position would be the "causal indeterminist or event-causal libertarian view of free will" promoted by Robert Kane. For Kane free will is "the power to be the ultimate creator and sustainer of some of one's own ends and purposes". One exercises this free will when there are "alternate possibilities" and "ultimate responsibility" allowing one to perform "self forming actions". At other times, which may be most of the time, one does not have free will.

A position that may be antithetical to the above positions is to consider freedom as what allows the passage back and forth from treating reality as a problem to participating in reality as a mystery. Kenneth T. Gallagher writes about Gabriel Marcel's position: (page 49)

That is why the passage back to certitude in the region of mystery is a task of my freedom; that is why metaphysics is a "logic of liberty."

From this perspective, one could say there is no time when we do not have free will as long as we have the ability to go back and forth between approaching reality as problem or mystery.

Gallagher, K. T., & Marcel, G. (1963). The Philosophy of Gabriel Marcel.

Kane, R. "Free Will: New Foundations for an Ancient Problem". Reprinted in Free Will Hackett Readings in Philosophy from *Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962) pp. 1-25


After granting the existence of free will, there are some actions that a person will take unwillingly. Pulling your hand away from something hot is something that is done involuntarily. The patellar reflex is another example. The patellar reflex in particular never interacts with the brain. (When the doctor hits you below the knee with their little hammer they are testing the patellar reflex.)

You also have no control over what you hear or taste. If someone talks to me while I am paralyzed, I cannot help but hear and interpret what they say. This is why people obstruct there hearing by plugging their ears or making noises louder than the thing they do not want to hear. They are using their free will to try and stop the sensory input because once the soundwaves hit their eardrums, their brain will interpret what was said automatically. Hearing is an action that a person performs that is involuntary and can even contradict our free will.

If you want examples of times free will is stripped from a person, then it is necessary to define free will. A person coming out of surgery is an example of someone you might say does not have free will. They react to there environment, but they seem unable to exercise free will.


More people should study basic AI. At its core AI consists of many nodes, the job of which is to sum numbers (typically a number between 0 and 1) from nodes connected to it, perform some function on them and pass on the result (0 to 1) to more nodes.

The network is given inputs (say 64 0-1 values representing pixel brightness of an 8x8 image). The nodes each petform their task, many layers feeding into other layers, until the final layer (the outputs) produce an answer (say one output, is this image a letter A? 1 for yes 0 for no)

The network is shown an image, there's a flurry of activity, and an answer emerges. If the answer is incorrect, the correct answet is imposed on the output and inputs and each node (using a clever derivative based algorithm) has its function slightly adjusted in the right direction.

A letter B is shown, we expect a Zero (we want an A) so we force back that answer. This training continues, with the letter A rotated, or made serif etc. Thousands and thousands of times, until, when shown an A and only when shown an A, the network outputs a 1.

We train up 27 such networks, all connected to the same inputs. Each trained to spot a different letter. We show the inputs any letter, One of the outputs is happy.

We can put any inputs into the network. A megapixel image. An audio sample.. And we can chain the results through other networks (deep learning).

The bigger the network, the longer it will.take to 'settle' on an answer.

The brain works exactly the same way. And it is noticed that up to a second before a person 'chooses' between two objects placed in front of them, the brain fires like crazy.

Determinists like Dennett say that this is proof that free will is an illusion. That consciousness is just an executive window on the settling networks of biological AI. Decisions are actually the result of a seconds worth of node settling, not the transient ephemeral split second thing we percieve them to be.

This is almost certainly.true of lower animals.

But there is a difference (currently) between AI and human intelligence. The human 'backprop perceptron network' never completely settles to no activity even in complete sensory deprevation. The human brain has a tickover rate like a car at traffic lights.

Humans can resurrect stimulii from long ago. Run them through the network and suppress the outputs. Or we can override processing of immediate stimulii and choose to respond later. Consciousness is infinitely extended cognition. And somewhere in there is 'free will'.

Some suggest that this lies in the point where the cerebellum swaps left into right in the cerebrum and vice versa. in the pre frontal cortex. Who knows.

The point is that free will has something to do with humans a brain that never stops processing, and can use 'memories' as stimulii.

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