Discussion of free will seems increasingly prevalent in mainstream media, particularly Youtube and in reputable periodicals such as the Atlantic, the Conversation and the Guardian (to name a few).

Regardless of the 'truth' of Free Will, encountering ideas surrounding determinism and inagency can be difficult to absorb, and in some cases can lead to short-term and potentially long-term serious psychological and interpersonal harm.

As one example, Philosopher Galen Strawson (who denies Free Will) reported to the Guardian that he had been one recipient of a group email which read:

Last year you all played a part in destroying my life. I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence”.


The author of the email may have had underlying mental health issues, and whilst such a reaction might be rare, it is clear that the existentialist themes intrinsic to discussion of free will may be psychologically disruptive and/or harmful.

Which philosophical ideas/questions might successfully be employed to help those who find themselves ill-equipped to navigate the psychological pitfalls such as nihilism and moral ambiguity which can accompany investigation of free will?

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    Stoicism, of course. "Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant" - Seneca
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 5 '21 at 15:41
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    That guy lost everything good in his life because some dude said he doesn't believe in free will on TV? Or in a magazine? Somehow I suspect the dude had other issues...
    – TKoL
    Aug 5 '21 at 17:48
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    Funny. After I did my own research on the subject and reached the conclusion that libertarian free will is an illusion, to the contrary it was a relief and made my life easier. Just like when I got rid of my religious beliefs.
    – armand
    Aug 6 '21 at 3:29
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    About this I can't recommend enough Spinoza's Ethics, although it is an hard read, one can concentrate on the scholia parts and grasp the "how I learned to stop worrying and love determinism" idea behind the book. There are also good commentaries by modern authors but unfortunately I know of none published in English.
    – armand
    Aug 6 '21 at 6:54
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    I don't think there's any "philosophical" way out of this. Different people will react differently to the belief in no free will... or any other philosophical doctrine. And I don't think any one reaction is more "rational" than another. One person may believe there's no god and despair. Another one might feel happy from the same belief. Maybe from a utilitarian perspective the latter person is in the right. This stuff is more controlled by brain chemistry, genetics etc. Aug 6 '21 at 11:36

There are a few different directions to go on this. The person suffering can study philosophy further and learn to distinguish the implications of propositions more precisely (e.g. come to understand how analytic philosophers' discussions of the problem of free will don't align with popular conceptions of the inefficacy of our actions, or come to understand why whether we have free will or not in the analytic-philosophy sense of the term shouldn't have any effect whatsoever on how we relate to our own sense of agency cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally; I recommend Dan Dennett's book Elbow Room for analyzing some of these distinctions), or they can embrace a deterministic worldview and dive into some life-affirming deterministic philosophy (e.g. stoicism, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Alan Watts), or they can throw those texts in the trash and focus on improving their life instead of externalizing their frustrations about their life onto people who have nothing to do with their life, or they can get professional psychological help to try to untangle these confusions. I do recognize that there is a bastardization of philosophical theories in popular understanding (just like a lot of solid science gets transmuted into pseudoscience serving marketing purposes in many popular publications for laypeople). And there are sociocultural reasons why "determinism" increasingly resonates with more people's firsthand experience of life (e.g. capitalism = the rich get richer and the rest of us have less and less control over our life circumstances). So I'd add Marx to my recommended reading list for people struggling with existential suffering over arguments for determinism. Among other reasons, for Marx's historical materialism: Your ideas are a reflection of your material conditions; so (connecting the Marxist idea to a Nietzschean idea) people don't feel life is meaningless because they're convinced by some philosophy--they're convinced by some philosophy because they feel life is meaningless.

  • The last statement is an interesting and persuasive observation. I'm curious about whether psychotherapists may increasingly report presentations related to these issues, and whether these issues come to be explored within compulsory school curriculum. Existentialist psychotherapy (which came to prominence in the '70s - is still taught in tertiary level psychology environments. It may experience a resurgence in professional use – Aug 7 '21 at 9:52

The claim that there is no free will is a logical paradox. You cannot claim anything, unless you have free will to do so.

People who claim this nonsense are directly responsible for all the harm inflicted to those who believe it. To claim something is a conscious choice. To believe something is not.

The best way to help ill-equipped people is to stop confusing them with paradoxical claims.

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    Thanks Pertti. It is not a logical paradox. A person can certainly make a claim, whether or not they have free will. The fact that a person makes a claim says nothing about whether or not they were free to do so. The question is whether or not their claim is determined, or random, or free. When we make a claim, we experience it as free, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest it may not be free at all. There is probably power in easing people's confusions with a balanced perspective, ie: arguments for free will, but I think that's only part of the solution. Aug 5 '21 at 15:10
  • The claim is determined anyway. A random undetermined claim is not possible or at least it is extremely improbable. Prior events cannot determine the claim, we do not have that complex spinal reflexes. The question is whether it is determined by the claimant himself or by someone else forcing him to make the claim. The question is not whether free will exists, the question is whose free will is in action. Aug 5 '21 at 16:20
  • You state, "The claim is determined", then "Prior events cannot determine the claim". These two statements are about as contradictory as you can get. Regardless, this conversation is not addressing the question. If you wish to continue, I suggest we move to chat. Aug 5 '21 at 16:29
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    The persistence with which you bring back this tired fallacy of assuming your own conclusion while being each time corrected on this point is nothing short of astonishing.
    – armand
    Aug 6 '21 at 0:02
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