I'm not sure if this is generally thought to be the case, but it seems like any view that would suggest that human choices are completely free should be totally out of the question in debates about free will.

Whatever your view on free will (libertarian, compatibilist, hard determinist), it seems clear that certain external factors have some effect on our choices. Our genes, environment and upbringing have some effect on the choices we make. I assume most libertarians would agree (feel free to correct me).

(Take, for example, a drug addict. It just seems pretty incontrovertible that to some extent the addict's choice to take drugs is partially influenced by the neurobiological underpinnings of his addiction—even if he has some say in the matter via his freedom of will.)

So, my question is this: How do proponents of libertarian free will make sense of this "partial external determination" of our choices? Another way to put it: How do libertarians make sense of the notion that our choices—though technically free—are still "influenced"?

  • 1
    What do you see as the conflict that needs making sense of. It is choices that are free. Things that are not choices -- e.g. to be the human being that you already are at the moment with all the physical trappings involved -- are not free. The only problem I can imagine is telling which kind of thing is which. May 30, 2021 at 21:15
  • Libertarian freewill is usually a religious position, with connection to divinity or some kind of soul imbuing a magical property. Wisdom was pictured as the magnification of our freedom, separating us from impulses, coercions, emotional appeals, or rhetoric. Wisdom traditions and wisdom literature have largely been discarded in modern thought, I guess because of a more mechanistic than self-cultivating perspective.
    – CriglCragl
    May 30, 2021 at 23:31
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    @CriglCragl. To say 'usually' there is a vast overstatement. Libertarian free will is the naive default. Most people who have not thought about it too much hold that position, whether or not they are religious. May 31, 2021 at 0:52
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    The most popular libertarian proposals are two stage models of free will. Very roughly, the first stage generates available choices that respect external constraints, and the second stage makes a free choice among them. More sophisticated models mix or iterate these two types of stages. Although the idea predates quantum mechanics (it goes back to James), it fits very well with its standard interpretation: deterministic evolution produces eigenstates, indeterministic collapse puts the system into one of them.
    – Conifold
    May 31, 2021 at 5:18
  • I would echo Conifold's comment. Without contextual constraints, any meaningful choice through the exercise of free will cannot arise. May 31, 2021 at 12:31

2 Answers 2


Warning: I am totally playing devil's advocate here. I try to steelman libertarian free will, sorry in advance if i misrepresent the view.

Libertarian free will is from the get go a non deterministic view. It is to say, the laws of physics and biochemistry don't restrict our choices, but we are the ultimate cause of our actions or our desires.

So yes, drug addiction provokes a lot of pain but in the end an addict has the choice to go the easy way by taking a fix or endure the pain until sober. The "partial determination" is only due to contingent circumstances: being in pain is a disagreeable state after all, and it just makes sense that people would usually prefer to go the easy way. But they still had the choice to endure.

You could see it like a freeway service area with two restaurants, one proposing yummy food in a nice ambiance and the other only shoddy generic food for about the same price. People would naturally tend to go to the former, but some might find it too crowded and opt for the latter because they lack of time. In the end, most people will use the good restaurant, but everybody can be seen as having made their decision freely.

  • Then you open up the door to all sorts of ways to manipulate "free" will, such as the advertising industry uses.
    – user253751
    May 31, 2021 at 9:50
  • Putting on my devil's advocate's cap, I would say that people make their economic choices freely, based on the information they are provided. Wether this information is accurate and honest or not ("this yogurt will give you the body line of Emilia Clarke", etc) is irrelevant. Of course the problem comes when experiences in the lab show you can predictably influence people in their choice without them noticing you did (product placement, etc). That's where my cap falls.
    – armand
    May 31, 2021 at 10:46
  • @user253751 Advertising is an example of attempted coercion. The whole idea of coercion presupposes a free will to coerce.. May 31, 2021 at 12:39
  • @GuyInchbald but if it can be successfully coerced, is it really free?
    – user253751
    May 31, 2021 at 12:48
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    sometimes I put my foot in front of a ball and the ball goes over my foot, instead of left. Is it therefore free?
    – user253751
    May 31, 2021 at 14:21

Choices cannot be determined. Not even partially. Choices determine our actions.

Libertarian free will means the ability to choose our actions according to our preferences.

  • External factors, the circumstances, don't determine our actions. They are just the current state of affairs.

  • Internal factors, the preferences, don't determine our actions either. They define only the preferred future state of affairs.

Whenever the circumstances don't match our preferences, we have a problem. Problems never determine their solutions. To solve the problem we must choose our actions to change the circumstances more to our liking.

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