A brief, general definition of freewill

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Some areas of the human brain implicated in mental disorders
that might be related to freewill. Source: wikipedia.

In my previous article, I explored the subject of freewill in the context of my own metaphysics: a formulation of idealism. In this brief essay, I'd like to generalize some of the principles I based my earlier discussion on, for the benefit of those interested in the topic of freewill but not necessarily interested in particular metaphysical formulations.

What is freewill? We all have an intuitive understanding of it, but when we translate that understanding into words, we often misrepresent the essence of our own intuition. Having pondered about it for a while, here is how I would define it:

Freewill is the capacity of an agent to make an intentional choice unconstrained by any factor outside that which the agent identifies itself with.

The word 'intentional' is important to differentiate a true choice from a merely random choice. A true choice entails a preference, purpose or bias of some sort, not the mere throw of dice.

Let's exemplify this definition by taking the agent to be a person. Personal freewill is then the capacity of a person to make an intentional choice unconstrained by any influence, limit, requirement or power that the person does not identify herself with. Note the emphasis on what a person identifies herself with, as opposed to what a particular paradigm implies the person to be. Materialism, for instance, entails that a person is merely her physical body. This way, if a person's choices are merely the outcome of deterministic physical processes in her brain, that would still comply with the definition of freewill above. After all, the processes in a person's brain are part of what the person supposedly is. Yet, most of us would intuitively and immediately reject deterministic brain processes to be an expression of true freewill. Why? Because, for whatever reason, we do not identify ourselves with processes in our brains. We say that we have a brain, as opposed to saying that we are a brain.

The definition above also circumvents a problem with libertarian freewill, which entails that a truly free choice must be completely non-determined. The problem here is that, from a logical perspective, a choice is either the deterministic outcome of some (perhaps unfathomably rich, incomprehensible, transcendent, meaningful and complex) process, or random. It is very hard, if at all possible, to find semantic or logical space for libertarian freewill if we insist on differentiating it form the latter two cases. According to the definition above, on the other hand, true freewill can be the expression of a deterministic process, so long as the determining factors of that process are internal to that which the choosing agent identifies itself with.

Most people identify themselves with their particular conscious thoughts and emotions, as subjectively experienced. Therefore, when agents are human beings, true freewill is the case if, and only if, all determining factors behind the making of a choice are part of the person's conscious thoughts and emotions: her opinions, beliefs, preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes, goals, etc. The fact that a particular paradigm, like materialism, insists that thoughts and emotions are brain activity is merely a conceptual abstraction that bears no psychological relevance to how a person experiences her own identity. This way, the definition of freewill above is independent of particular ontological paradigms, like materialism.

To say that our choices are the deterministic outcome of processes that we identify ourselves with does not refute the essence of our intuition about freewill. The appearance that it does is merely a linguistic illusion. Let me try to illustrate this with an example. I may say: 'I made choice A but I could have made choice B.' This statement is a clear assertion of my freewill; in fact, it captures the very core of what freewill entails, doesn't it? Yet, the statement implies that the choice was indeed determined: it was determined by me! In other words, it was the perceived essence of what it means to be me that determined the choice. Therefore, I can rephrase the statement in the following way, without changing its meaning or implications: 'I chose A because it is my perceived essential nature to do so, although there were no external factors preventing me from choosing B.' Formulated this way, the statement is clearly consistent with the definition above. Do you see what I mean?

When one says that one's choice cannot be determined by anything in order to be truly free, what one actually means is that one's choice cannot be determined by anything external to that which one identifies oneself with. After all, unless the choice is random, it must be determined by something, even if that something is no more than the perceived essential nature of the agent that makes the choice. True freewill applies in this latter case.

I hope this brief articulation helps sort out some of the linguistic and logical noise that so often clouds discussions about freewill.


  1. Hmm. I'm not sure I'm convinced, Bernardo. You say:

    "Freewill is the capacity of an agent to make an intentional choice unconstrained by any factor outside that which the agent identifies itself with."

    Imagine I want a piece of fruit, and your fruit bowl contains apples and pears. I usually prefer pears. If I know in advance that a pear is just the right softness and juiciness, I'll choose it. If not, I might feel it/smell it or ask your opinion, and if unsure, might choose an apple. I can choose a pear and discard it in favour of an apple, but an internal constraint of mine is not wasting food. I assume you'd call this an example of exercising free will, because I'm making an intentional choice not constrained by anything that lies outside what I commonly identify with, i.e. a self that prefers pears to apples.

    But then I think, what about this preference that I apply my heuristic to in an attempt to satisfy it? Whence comes it, and why do others prefer apples to pears? Do we have any real choice? Maybe not. It might seem I have free will, but it's predetermined by something I have no control over, i.e. my physiological preference, with which I perforce identify; so I suppose I would still have free will under your definition. Certainly, no one's forcing me which to eat.

    I do actually believe we have the capacity to exercise free will. I'd also agree that we all have our particular natures that we identify with, and that if nothing or no one stops me behaving in accord with mine, then in a way, I am a free agent. But in effect, that may entail being free to act in accord with my predetermined physiological or psychological constitution. For me, true free will involves transcending this constitution; doing things that it doesn't dictate; doing things that when on autopilot (which I suspect is most of the time) we wouldn't ordinarily do.

    However, sometimes, situations demand more introspection. For example, doctors might advise that pears upset digestion more than apples, and Internet research might confirm that. Then, the choice whether or not to eat pears can be a conscious one: I'm not simply following my constitutional preference. Maybe I'll continue to eat them, but in any case, I've actually made a conscious choice what to do, and that ties in with your stipulation of intentionality, but seems to be more detached from what I identify with. I can't help but identify with my physiological preference for pears, but my free choice consists in deciding whether or not to go with that (predetermined) preference.

    Flying on autopilot isn't all bad: if we agonised over every minor action we took, we'd probably get little done. It's quite often when faced with an existential threat or realisation that we act more consciously than we usually do, and those are occasions when I'd say we really do have the opportunity to exercise free will. Having free will is more than simply being free of external influences that stop us following our (sometimes hard-wired) preferences.

    Think of a man who is considering whether to enlist in the army to fight in a current war. He might enlist because he's a man of action, or not enlist because he's not. IMO, it's doubtful that such men are exercising much, if any, free will. OTOH, a man of action who considers very carefully whether to enlist (e.g. because he wouldn't like the killing), is more likely exercising free will. Likewise for a more passive man who considers very carefully (because he might feel a degree of obligation to defend his country). And so for yet a third man, who doesn't know the right or wrong of it, but thinks long and hard about before coming to his decision.

    Most of the time, I think we just go with the way we're constituted: we don't even get to the stage where we realise there's an existential choice. We always have the capacity to exercise free will, but mostly, don't.

    1. >> It might seem I have free will, but it's predetermined by something I have no control over, i.e. my physiological preference, with which I perforce identify; so I suppose I would still have free will under your definition. <<

      Not really. You said it yourself: "...my physiological preference, with which I perforce identify." The mere fact that you feel forced to tell yourself that you identify with it shows clearly that, in truth, you don't identify with it. Thus, this isn't freewill according to my definition, insofar as the identification here is illusory; it's a rational conclusion derived from a paradigm, not a natural, true identification. This thing you don't really identify yourself with is that thing that you "have no control over," to use your words. The very way you talk about it betrays your true lack of identification with it. My definition rests on our true subjective experience of identification, not with the implications of intellectual models.

      >> that may entail being free to act in accord with my predetermined physiological or psychological constitution. <<

      Here you are bringing in rational concepts again, theories that may force your intellect to adopt a certain identity at a conceptual level. But none of it has to do with your natural feeling of self-identification, which is what the definition rests on.

      >> I'm not simply following my constitutional preference <<

      According to the paradigm, you certainly still are. But then again, that's not what I meant with identification. I meant your true, concept-free, feeling-toned experience of self-identification.

      >> I can't help but identify with my physiological preference for pears, but my free choice consists in deciding whether or not to go with that (predetermined) preference. <<

      Here you're mixing things up. Either (a) you go with a rational paradigm of thought that dictates a conceptual identification that isn't your true feeling-toned self-identification; or (b) you recognise what you truly identify yourself with, independent of any theory or conceptualisation. If you go with (a), then your 'free choice' is most certainly still derived from your physiology, just from a different part of it (instead of taste, a rationalisation). The whole thing is supposedly still pre-determined and your impression of making a choice independent of your physiology is supposedly just an illusion. Now, if you go with (b), then the whole conceptual arsenal around physiology and the like is irrelevant. The question is not what your intellect believes you to be, but what you identify yourself with at an experiential, gut-level.

      >> Most of the time, I think we just go with the way we're constituted <<

      The dualism you imply here -- i.e. the difference between 'you' and the 'way you are constituted' -- colours your entire post. I understand it, but it's entirely conceptual. Notice that it is derived from a certain intellectual schema that is not required or entailed by my definition of freewill. Conceptualisations aside, there is something you truly identify with -- the 'you' in the quote above. If a choice is made without constraints external to that 'you,' then I call it freewill. That said, of course the 'you' has an intrinsic nature that determines its choices.

    2. Thanks for the reply, Bernardo. I guess that your use of the word "identifies" is what led me to misunderstand you, and to judge (evidently mistakenly) that you yourself were using dualistic language, to which I responded in similar terms (I know from what you've written in the past that you sometimes consciously use dualistic language for convenience).

      I believe that what most people for most of the time identify with is ego, which one could describe as a composite of physiology and psychology--if one were using rather dualistic language, as I was. But to be more nuanced, if there's a dualism, I see it as being between two modes of mentation.

      IMO, egoic mentation renders us virtually incapable of exercising free will and causes us to fly on autopilot; during more reflective moments, we may be able to override that to some degree. The "we" doing the overriding is closer to essential mode: is identifying more with the true essence of what we are.

      I feel we can't deny the two modes of mentation; can't deny that sometimes we are more subject to one than the other. Or, that sometimes, egoic mentation can be quite useful. Moreover, I think it can take quite a long time to realise that the two modes exist: in my case, around 44 years. That's not to say that before then, I hadn't ever been in essential mode: more that before then, I hadn't really grasped the distinction, despite knowing the words "ego" and "essence" for many years.

      What did the trick was a spontaneous experience of the essential mode of mentation, the cause of which I have never been able to pin down. It just started one day and lasted a few weeks, leaving an indelible impression. Now and then it makes (usually shorter) reappearances. During its absence, one has faith in it and tries to act accordingly. During its presence, no faith is required: it's quite effortless, and also, quite glorious.

      The Sufis refer to a "perfected human being" (insan-i-kamil) as being unable to do anything other than the "will of God". Now I'm not claiming to be insan-i-kamil: very far from it. But maybe--just maybe--I've faintly glimpsed what the Sufis mean when they say that.

      And if it's true, then in a way there is no such thing as free will: rather, there's one mode of mentation in which we act robotically, and another where we can't help but act in accord with our true nature (and there are probably varying degrees of being able to do that). Since we're all chips off the Old Block, that implies acting like the Old Block would in our shoes, which I believe It actually is.

      Put another way, maybe It's the water in The Stream that is experiencing itself, from a limited perspective, in a whirlpool, and occasionally, getting a perspective closer to that of The Stream. An Insan-i-kamil, it is reported, experiences no difference between him/herself and God: no transition at bodily death. A number of them were brutally executed for blasphemy on this account: perhaps most famously, Mansur Al-Hallaj.

      I suspect that at bottom we may be in fairly close agreement, and apologise for my misunderstanding.

  2. Excellent definition. There is, however, a freedom that is greater than this: The freedom that results from not consciously, emotionally or in any other way, self-identifying with any appearance, due to a direct realization that all appearances are empty of inherent existence and without self.

    1. I agree... yet this is something that can only be experienced, not argued analytically.

  3. I find it useful to transcend the foibles of dualism by thinking of free-will as a scale. Free-will may be directly proportional to an agents competency in realizing (understanding) one's own conditioned nature and the capacity to overcome or transcend said conditioned nature.

    It is also worth considering that our psyches are in part (approximately 50%) comprised by society, culture, nature and more. So says this organized construct of stardust.

  4. A couple of lines of thought below that I've been trying to join together which seem along those lines, but haven't quite got there yet. Input welcome.

    1. Perhaps we can approach it this way:

    The choices we make and the paths we take arise from our preferences. This negates "free will" in the sense that the choices we make correspond to who we are (what we identify with) and so usually we don't so much "make" those choices as experience them happening. We imagine after the fact that we could have chosen otherwise, but we never do.

    However, there is another "free will" which arise from the fact that we are the "first cause" of ourselves. We can freely "change our shape" and therefore our character. This is not something that involves doing; it is a becoming. If we change what we are, we change decisions will arise from us subsequently. And surely all we really want is to make decisions consistent with who we are and with our desires?

    2. Further thoughts:

    We don't directly control ourselves in general, upon examination. We don't directly control our bodies or other thoughts moment by moment, although we can briefly directly interfere. Perhaps our "free will" is better characterised as: Injecting new "goals" such that the direction of our behaviour begins to align with that new purpose; and "free won't" of suppressing something that's starting to happen. Is true free will really about "target setting" and occasional suppression of spontaneous behaviour? This "target setting" would be equivalent to the idea of "changing our character" above.

    "Decision making", then, can be either an experience that happens to us, or the experience of taking a grip of ourselves and directly manipulating our character. It is possible to live your life confusing the first one with the second - i.e. to live 'automatically' according to your character as it was from year 'x' onwards, and never know it.

    1. 1: on what basis do we 'decide" to change ourselves? Based on what you call our 'preferences,' which are reflections of what we are now. So what we become is a direct function of what we are now. No? :) But I don't think this negates freewill because, as I defined it above, freewill _is_ the reflection of that which we identify ourselves with.

      2: In a sense, this is just postponing the problem. On the basis of what do we decide upon the 'new goals'? If the 'new goals' are chosen as a function of what we are now, then you have the same problem. We still act as a function of what we are. If we happen to identify with the totality of what we are now, then the setting of new goals is a freewilled choice. If we don't identify with that totality, then we feel that a choice is being imposed on us (even the choice of new goals).

    2. Ah, I only just discovered this reply. Yes.

      On reflection, the difference is encapsulated by what we identify with - either a larger self or a smaller, thought-focused self (ego). How we switch from one mode to the other, the first time, is a mystery. After that, the small self has 'knowledge' of the fact of a larger self, albeit only conceptual knowledge, and we can then perhaps 'will' the change of context ('become the space in which our experiences arise') and have freewilled choices for goal-setting.

  5. This is a really old post of yours Bernardo, but since I have recently found out about you and your (wonderful might I add) books and content (I'm already reading The Idea of The World - this is genuinely what modern science and philosophy needs right now btw), please forgive me for being so late to the discussion :) hopefully you do still get notifications if comments arise on these posts.

    I have contemplated about free-will a lot in my last decade of meditative, introspective and spiritual practices. I do feel that in a way I agree with you, yet in other ways our positions may differ (it could be that we mean the same things, yet it has simply been lost in language). Though some of what I write is from an intellectual and philosophical standpoint, I try to stay experientially grounded in my thesis.

    In my view, the One Reality, the Absolute, which you posit as Consciousness/Mind (your ontological primitive), which has split into alters (which could be called a soul, in theosophy this is for example labeled a primordial monad), has a certain volition as a whole (the non-alter based thoughtscape that encompasses the majority of the Cosmos), yet that volition is also fully available to every alter (soul/monad) within it. *Here I believe you posited that the All has no volition of its own and only alters have volition - this could be debated and you definitely could be correct, but I won't go into this here.

    Thus one could say every alter/soul has a fundamental free will that is unconstrained by any form of identification, but only from an identification with itself as pure consciousness (yet remaining as an alter as this pure consciousness - thus experiencing itself as an individuated part of the all and yet understanding it is also a part of the whole thing). The alter, in the Cosmic game, as per esoteric thought, goes through a form of involution, where it identifies itself with more and more mind constructs...all the way to the most dense mind and seemingly solid mind constructs which constitute the "physical" reality as we know it. After that it moves into "evolution" and dis-identifies with what it has previously lost itself in.

    The most limiting identification of the alter is the physical body and a completely limited mental ego based on lower level thought constructs (fear, anger, lack...), while beyond that there are more and more subtle identifications (these are usually referred to as the subtle bodies, the astral and causal bodies), all the the way to complete dis-identification with all of these constructs and a residing as pure aspect of the Absolute. Now in my experience, even as one merges with the Absolute (the ontological primitive), one retains the sense of an individuated alter, yet with it comes an understanding that it is also all-encompassing - the whole. From this perspective, it is the most unlimited and free, as it is not really identified with anything in the consciousness created thought-scape. This, in my view, is what we could call true undetermined free-will.

    ..........continues in reply........

  6. ...............continuation of previous comment................

    In my experience I would posit that every alter/soul has, to a degree, a sense of being fundamentally consciousness. Without at least a subtle awareness of this, they would not be able to exist. The more one explores and practices spirituality, the more their self expands and the less they limit themselves with various identifications which may be determining factors. In my experience more consciousness and awareness always causes more and more dis-identification from the various forms of the mind created thought-scape (forms of subtle and gross creation - all the way to the physical) and thus an increased sense of peace, love (which is a fundamental realization of this unity) and freedom.
    The more one becomes conscious, the less they are, in a sense, limited or determined by any sort of identifications - with either the mind or the body (which is obviously the mind in dense form). From this point and from this sense of freedom and consciousness, total non-determinism, total freedom, unbridled creativity and spontaneity trickles down into the lower levels of the still identified psyche of the alter and distorts itself through that identification.

    Thus, the more one is free and not identified with anything except Freedom itself, the more their will is completely non-determined. The determining factors come from the more and more dense and complex mental creations, all the way to the physical. The more the alter/soul/monad identifies with the densest and most immutable parts of creation (the physical), the less actual free-will they have and the more they are determined. Thus those that are completely identified with being physical bodies are far more determined by the thought-creations encompassing them, than those that are identified with less and less, as well as more subtle forms of mind - or indeed nothing at all.

    To sum up: all true freedom and completely non-determined (libertarian) free-will comes from the Absolute or Consciousness. It trickles down through the thought scapes of the alter/soul's identifications and distorts itself through them. The more one is identified with the varying thought-creations of this mental world, the more one is determined, the physical world being the densest and most predetermined. The more one can let go of all identifications, the more one becomes completely non-determined by anything, as they become Freedom itself.

    Hopefully this was coherent and explained well enough :) I am basing a lot of this on my personal experience, observations and introspection - but also various forms of esoteric and spiritual literature that has helped sharpen my view. Your books are also an amazing view-sharpener and I am looking forward to continue reading them and recommending them to all I meed :)

    Plenty of love and best wishes,