NOTE: This question does not assume the existence or non-existence of free will.

Dan Dennett, Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, states that when "...neuroscientists who've been going around saying that neuroscience shows we don't have free will...[are] doing some real harm". Dan Dennett: Big Think

He goes on to describe a (seriously flawed) thought experiment to support his claim, implying that those who learn there's no free will will be rendered "mentally incompetent", and that broadcasting such news would be "irresponsible".

Dennett references Vohs and Schooler, 2008 to support his views, but Miles, 2013, claims that Vohs and Schooler's studies, "...all appear to be linked by a fundamental methodological error that suggests that... their putative findings may be spurious". Miles also makes the vital point that, "And it has long been recognised by certain scientists, legal theorists, and philosophers that far from having prosocial benefits, belief in free will acts to discriminate against the poor and racial minorities, may make justice impossible and even encourages contempt for and violence towards the weak".

Dennett's generalisation - about our ability to healthily process the notion that free will is an illusion - is broad and condescending, but he may be right in that some, if not many people will be ill-equipped to cope with such information. It is easy to imagine some people becoming apathetic, criminal, nihilistic, depressed, negligent and/or reckless as a result of being told that they are cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Assuming it is possible to suppress a finding of such magnitude, would the dangers presented by such a discovery justify its suppression?

EDIT: In response to a comment request, I provide the following (admittedly imperfect) definition of free will:

"The ability to act and make decisions in a self-determined way, independently of causal or random physical processes; to be the originating source of one's own behaviour".

...and of the illusion of free will:

"To perceive that one holds free will when in fact one's actions and decisions are dictated by deterministic and/or random physical processes".

Any suggestions for improvement of these definitions will be considered.

I provide some other references useful to this consideration of this question. Whilst there is ample peer-reviewed material on this topic, I have emphasised generalist articles that are accessible without payment/subscription, in the hope these will provide further direction to the more academically-inclined.

Punishing Without Free Will

Epistemic Paternalism in Public Health

Don't Lie but Don't Tell the Whole Truth: The Therapeutic Privilege - Is it Ever Justified?

Free Will and the Law: New Perspectives

Laypersons’ Beliefs and Intuitions About Free Will and Determinism: New Insights Linking the Social Psychology and Experimental Philosophy Paradigms

Free Will and Politics

Science is uprooting Free Will from Governance

The Conversation: The Psychology of Believing in Free Will

The Influence of (Dis)belief in Free Will on Immoral Behavior

The Dangerous Doctrine of Free WIll

Belief in Free Will Affects Causal Attributions When Judging Others’ Behavior

The Hazards of Claiming to Have Solved the Hard Problem of Free Will, Sharrif, Schooler & Voss, 2008

The Illusion of Conscious Will, Wegner, 2008

  • Your question is useless speculation on the impossible. There is no way free will could be proven illusory. There isn't even a definition for what "illusion of free will" means. There is no hypothesis to prove or disprove. Aug 13, 2021 at 11:36
  • 1
    @Pertti. I'm intrigued by your confidence. Science continually proves itself capable of surprising us; of illuminating that which had not previously considered or deemed possible. If you have grounds for such a belief, and for your other statements, please post them in an answer, as these comment sections frequently get too long and it's best if others aren't crowded out. Aug 13, 2021 at 11:50
  • There is always a case for and a case against something, both are already sketched in the OP. And even aside from a purely speculative premise it is hard to see how "would the dangers justify?" can be answered other than based on personal opinions.
    – Conifold
    Aug 13, 2021 at 12:01
  • @Futilitarian This was not an answer, this was a comment on the question. Your question is incomplete without the definition. Before speculating on "illusory free will" you should define what it means. What happens in reality when we experience this illusion? Aug 13, 2021 at 12:03
  • Decisions cannot be dictated by physical processes. Decisions can only be made by mental processes. Physical processes have no reason to decide one way or the other. Every voluntary action aims at a goal in the future. Every voluntary action must be decided. It is not possible to cause an attempt to reach a desired future state. There is no case for illusory free will. Aug 13, 2021 at 12:31

2 Answers 2


Disbelief in free will is a category error. Humans don't exist in physics, they are just lumps of chemistry that we have a conceptual shorthand for. And so obviously the same with free will - it doesn't exist at the fundamental level of (at least broadly deterministic physics (see black hole three body problem for evidence the universe is not fully deterministic).

Individuals have a limited amount of information, so even a deterministic model can account for arriving at Bayesian priors to choose between outcomes, as a conceptual shortcut based on incomplete information. Ie, compatibilism.

It's like saying 'beauty' isn't 'real'. Sure, it isn't meaningful for physics. But, it is a meaningful and useful shortcut in explaining human behaviour, that we can link to evolutionary and cultural conditions - which again, are not meaningful in physics. This is why claiming beauty is not real is a category error too.

There is substantial research (see linked papers) showing harms of not believing in free will, and on negative individual behaviour, although there are arguably some benefits around judging others and the cognitive bias to over-attribute internal determinants to the behaviours of others.

It is ironic that wisdom is no longer a topic in mainstream philosophy, when it is exactly what we need to understand how to be relatively more free. Socrates was focused on avoiding 'pursuasion without regard to truth' by sophists, what Harry Frankfurt calls 'bullshit'. Buddha was concerned with how we can avoid coercion by sensory experiences, habits, and impulses. I'd summarise wisdom as acting from the integrated centre of our concerns, so a practice, something cultivated in an on-going way, to avoid contradictory or short-term choices (& over prioritising only long-term choices, especially in the case of Buddhist thought). I'd frame valuing wisdom as part of a paradigm that prioritises qualities around solving dilemmas, and relate it's fall from grace on the shift to gathering the most information about the world as removing most of the need for difficult decision making. This is to neglect the qualities of good decision makers, and perhaps has contributed to a run of deeply un-wise world leaders.

Freedom, like beauty, should be understood in relative terms, as a direction rather than a state, as an active mode of comparative evaluation. We are subject to gravity, and many other constraints that limit our freedom - but someone who has more choices available to them, between more fully understood futures, can still be understood as relatively more free, even if in a final analysis with total information their choices are predictable. From their point of view & that of other humans, the conceptual heuristic overlay of intentions, is still the best way to engage with the world.

The Dunbar Number evidences that our neocortex evolved primarily to navigate our social environment, and to understand the intentions of others. That results in a cognitive bias towards the overlay on the world of narrating identities, that even pervades physics - discussed here Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)? It's fine to seek to correct for that, and to understand that our behaviours are conditioned in many ways. But if we are not Laplace's demon, we will still get better predictions in general from the conceptual overlay of identities and intentions, even though they are a conceptual shorthand imposed on a more fundamental layer.

  • It is useful to consider freedom in the relative terms of which you speak whilst simultaneously asking if it is illusory; to credit experience whilst acknowledging it may be misleading us. The ramifications are immense. Regardless of whether you consider denial of free will a category error, the question of whether or not it exists other than as a cognitive experience is valid and fascinating. This question relates to whether or not it would be ethical to suppress any finding that our experiential notion of free will is illusory, and provides ample opportunity for wisdom in reply. Aug 13, 2021 at 13:11
  • @Futilitarian: It's just playing with language. Are identities 'not real'? Consistent use of that term in that way leaves only 'atoms and the void'. It's just what Wittgenstein would call a fly in bottle, failing to recognise the necessary direction of escape. Promoting the 'no free will' perspective is actively anti-wisdom, the inverse of it.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 13, 2021 at 13:37
  • I have in no way promoted the 'no free will' perspective in this post. I have merely acknowledged it exists and have posed a question in relation to any future finding that free will is illusory, which you don't seem to want to engage with. The question of free will is a question that has occupied some of our best minds for the past two millennia. It continues to do so. If you find it somehow unimportant, you are (possibly) free to do so. I did post a 'Proof for the absence of free will?', but don't mistake my challenges/questions for my opinions. I haven't made up my mind yet. Have you? Aug 13, 2021 at 13:53
  • 1
    @Futilitarian: Not directed at you. Incompatibilism is a small minority stance among philosophers (epiphenomenalism is a slightly more respectable stance). Sam Harris is a fairly rare example of one, his views are deconstructed here aphilosopherstake.com/2012/07/29/… Others tend to be neuroscientists like him, not well versed in philosophy. Free will is specifically of concern for philosophy that emerged through Abrahamic cultures, in regard to theogeny & 'getting god off the hook' for evil. It's a parochial linguistic confusion
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 13, 2021 at 14:05

What are the social consequences of believing in "free will"?

If a person believes they can exercise free will to improve their future, they may decide that they are less constrained by negative elements of their life. They may decide to take action, instead of feeling hopeless.

However, it may also cause them not to seek mental health counseling when they need it. After all, if they are driven by "free" will, what use is it to try to analyze why they do the things they do? This attitude may lock them in to harmful patterns of behavior that they keep imagining they can "will" themselves out of.

"Free will" serves the social function of blaming/punishing people when they do undesired things. According to this doctrine, criminals, poor, and homeless "freely" made life choices that put them where they are, so we should punish them so they or others like them would be motivated to make different choices. This is useful so far as it is a socially effective way of changing their behavior. And punishment is at times effective.

Punishment is counterproductive when more compassionate interventions would be more effective - such as mental health counseling, or changing the person's environment. The concept of "fixing someone's mind or environment so they behave better" is incompatible with the notion of free will.

  • You raise some interesting points, but the question is, "If free will is proven illusory, is there a case for suppressing the finding?". I'd be interested to know your thoughts. Aug 15, 2021 at 10:06
  • @Futilitarian The understanding that the mind is a machine that can be fixed through counseling and change of environment is incompatible with free will, and necessary for compassionate (non-punitive) mental health interventions.
    – causative
    Aug 15, 2021 at 10:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.