Philosophical Studies

, Volume 172, Issue 8, pp 2033–2054 | Cite as

Why people believe in indeterminist free will

  • Oisín DeeryEmail author


Recent empirical evidence indicates that (1) people tend to believe that they possess indeterminist free will, and (2) people’s experience of choosing and deciding is that they possess such freedom. Some also maintain that (3) people’s belief in indeterminist free will has its source in their experience of choosing and deciding. Yet there seem to be good reasons to resist endorsing (3). Despite this, I maintain that belief in indeterminist free will really does have its source in experience. I explain how this is so by appeal to the phenomenon of prospection, which is the mental simulation of future possibilities for the purpose of guiding action. Crucially, prospection can be experienced. And because of the way in which prospection models choice, it is easy for agents to experience and to believe that their choice is indeterministic. Yet this belief is not justified; the experience of prospection, and hence of free will as being indeterminist, is actually consistent with determinism.


Free will Alternative possibilities Determinism/indeterminism Prospection Causal modeling 



Thanks to Paul Russell, Taylor Davis, Eddy Nahmias, Jenann Ismael, Terry Horgan, Shaun Nichols, Bryan Chambliss, Will Leonard, and an anonymous referee at this journal for helpful feedback and comments.


  1. Anscombe, G. E. M. (1957). Intention. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  2. Aristotle. (1999). Nicomachean ethics (T. Irwin, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
  3. Bayne, T. (2008). The phenomenology of agency. Philosophy Compass, 3(1), 182–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bayne, T. (2011). The sense of agency. In F. Macpherson (Ed.), The senses (pp. 355–374). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bayne, T., & Pacherie, E. (2007). Narrators and comparators: The architecture of agentive self awareness. Synthese, 159(3), 475–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Berridge, K. (2004). Motivation concepts in behavioral neuroscience. Physiology & Behavior, 81, 179–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blakemore, S.-J., & Frith, C. (2003). Self-awareness and action. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 13(2), 219–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Buckner, R., & Carroll, D. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11, 49–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Campbell, C. A. (1951). Is ‘freewill’ a pseudo-problem? Mind, 60(240), 441–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. De Brigard, F., Addis, D. R., Ford, J. H., Schacter, D. L., & Giovanello, K. S. (2013). Remembering what could have happened: Neural correlates of episodic counterfactual thinking. Neuropsychologia, 51(12), 2401–2414.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Deery, O. (2014). The fall from Eden: Why libertarianism isn’t justified by experience. Australasian Journal of Philosophy. doi: 10.1080/00048402.2014.968596
  13. Deery, O., Bedke, M., & Nichols, S. (2013). Phenomenal abilities: Incompatibilism and the experience of agency. In D. Shoemaker (Ed.), Oxford studies in agency and responsibility (pp. 126–150). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Deery, O., Davis, T., & Carey, J. (2014). The free-will intuitions scale and the question of natural compatibilism. Philosophical Psychology. doi: 10.1080/09515089.2014.893868
  15. Delk, J. L., & Fillenbaum, S. (1965). Differences in perceived color as a function of characteristic color. The American Journal of Psychology, 78(2), 290–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. D’Holbach, B. (1970/1770). The system of nature (H. D. Robinson, Trans.). New York: B. Franklin.Google Scholar
  17. Fara, M. (2008). Masked abilities and compatibilism. Mind, 117(468), 843–865.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Feltz, A., & Cokely, E. (2009). Do judgments about freedom and responsibility depend on who you are? Personality differences in intuitions about compatibilism and incompatibilism. Consciousness and Cognition, 18(1), 342–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Feltz, A., Perez, A., & Harris, M. (2012). Free will, causes, and decisions: Individual differences in written reports. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 19(9–10), 166–189.Google Scholar
  20. Fischer, J. M. (1994). The metaphysics of free will. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 351, 1351–1354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hitchcock, C. R. (2001). The intransitivity of causation revealed in equations and graphs. Journal of Philosophy, 98, 273–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Holton, R. (2006). The act of choice. Philosophers’ Imprint, 6(3), 1–15.Google Scholar
  24. Horgan, T. (2007). Agentive phenomenal intentionality and the limits of introspection. Psyche, 13, 1–29.Google Scholar
  25. Horgan, T. (2011). The phenomenology of agency and freedom: Lessons from introspection and lessons from its limits. Humana Mente, 15, 77–97.Google Scholar
  26. Horgan, T. (2012). Introspection about phenomenal consciousness: Running the gamut from infallibility to impotence. In D. Smithies & D. Stoljar (Eds.), Introspection and consciousness (pp. 403–422). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Hume, D. (1955/1743). An enquiry concerning human understanding (L. Selby-Bigge, Ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  28. Isen, A. M., & Levin, P. F. (1972). Effect of feeling good on helping: cookies and kindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 384–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ismael, J. (2013). Causation, free will, and naturalism. In H. Kincaid, J. Ladyman, & D. Ross (Eds.), Scientific metaphysics (pp. 208–235). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kapitan, T. (1986). Deliberation and the presumption of open alternatives. The Philosophical Quarterly, 36(143), 230–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Knobe, J. (2014). Free will and the scientific vision. In E. Machery & E. O’Neill (Eds.), Current controversies in experimental philosophy (pp. 69–85). New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lagnado, D. A., & Channon, S. (2008). Judgments of cause and blame: The influence of intentionality and foreseeability. Cognition, 108, 754–770.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lagnado, D., Gerstenberg, T., & Zultan, R. (2013). Causal responsibility and counterfactuals. Cognitive Science, 37, 1036–1073.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Levin, D. T., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Distortions in the perceived lightness of faces: The role of race categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 135(4), 501–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Libet, B. (1999). Do we have free will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 47–57.Google Scholar
  37. List, C. (2014). Free will, determinism, and the possibility of doing otherwise. Noûs, 48(1), 156–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lombrozo, T. (2010). Causal-explanatory pluralism: How intentions, functions, and mechanisms influence causal ascriptions. Cognitive Psychology, 61(4), 303–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Malle, B. F. (2004). How the mind explains behavior: Folk explanations, meaning, and social interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  40. Mathews, K. E., & Cannon, L. K. (1975). Environmental noise level as a determinant of helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 571–577.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. May, J. (2014). On the very concept of free will. Synthese. doi: 10.1007/s11229-014-0426-1.Google Scholar
  42. McCauley, R. N., & Henrich, J. (2006). Susceptibility to the Müller–Lyer illusion, theory neutral observation, and the diachronic cognitive penetrability of the visual input system. Philosophical Psychology, 19(1), 79–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McClure, J., Hilton, D. J., & Sutton, R. M. (2007). Judgments of voluntary and physical causes in causal chains: Probabilistic and social functionalist criteria for attributions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 879–901.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Murray, D., & Nahmias, E. (2014). Explaining away incompatibilist intuitions. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 88(2), 434–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nahmias, E. (2006). Close calls and the confident agent: Free will, deliberation, and alternative possibilities. Philosophical Studies, 131(3), 627–667.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nahmias, E., Coates, J., & Kvaran, T. (2007). Free will, moral responsibility, and mechanism: Experiments on folk intuitions. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 31(1), 214–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Nahmias, E., & Deery, O. (In preparation). Defeating manipulation arguments: Interventionist causation and compatibilist sourcehood. Google Scholar
  48. Nahmias, E., Morris, S. G., Nadelhoffer, T., & Turner, J. (2004). The phenomenology of free will. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11(7–8), 162–179.Google Scholar
  49. Nahmias, E., & Murray, D. (2011). Experimental philosophy on free will: An error theory for incompatibilist intuitions. In J. Aguilar, A. Buckareff, & K. Frankish (Eds.), New waves in philosophy of action (pp. 189–215). London: Palgrave-Macmillan.Google Scholar
  50. Nelkin, D. (2004). Deliberative alternatives. Philosophical Topics, 32, 215–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nichols, S. (2004). The folk psychology of free will: Fits and starts. Mind and Language, 19(5), 473–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nichols, S. (2012). The indeterminist intuition: Source and status. The Monist, 95(2), 290–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Nichols, S., & Knobe, J. (2007). Moral responsibility and determinism: The cognitive science of folk intuitions. Noûs, 41(4), 663–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. O’Connor, T. (1995). Agent causation. In T. O’Connor (Ed.), Agents, causes, and events: Essays on indeterminism and free will (pp. 173–200). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  55. Pacherie, E. (2007). The sense of control and the sense of agency. Psyche, 13(1), 1–30.Google Scholar
  56. Pearl, J. (2001). Bayesianism and causality, or, why I am only a half-Bayesian. In D. Cornfield & J. Williamson (Eds.), Foundations of Bayesianism (pp. 19–36). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  57. Pereboom, D. (2008). A compatibilist account of the epistemic conditions on rational deliberation. The Journal of Ethics, 12, 287–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Railton, P. (2002). Kant meets Aristotle where reason meets appetite. In C. U. Moulines & K.-G. Niebergall (Eds.), Argument Und Analyse. Paderborn: Mentis.Google Scholar
  59. Rose, D., & Nichols, S. (2013). The lesson of bypassing. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 4(4), 599–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Roskies, A. (2012). Don’t panic: Self-authorship without obscure metaphysics. Philosophical Perspectives, 26(1), 323–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Searle, J. (1984). Minds, brains, and science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.Google Scholar
  62. Seligman, M., Railton, P., Baumeister, R., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past: prospection as an organizing principle of mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sloman, S. A. (2005). Causal models: How people think about the world and its alternatives. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Smart, J. J. C. (1961). Free will, praise and blame. Mind, 70, 291–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Spinoza, B. (1887/1677). The chief works of Benedict de Spinoza (Vol. II) (R. Elwes, Trans.). London: Bell and Sons.Google Scholar
  66. Synofzik, M., Vosgerau, G., & Newen, A. (2008). Beyond the comparator model: A multi-factorial two-step account of agency. Consciousness and Cognition, 17(1), 219–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Turner, J., & Nahmias, E. (2006). Are the folk agent causationists? Mind and Language, 21(5), 597–609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Vihvelin, K. (2004). Free will demystified: A dispositional account. Philosophical Topics, 32(1–2), 427–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Wegner, D. (2003). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  70. Weigel, C. (2011). Distance, anger, freedom: An account of the role of abstraction in compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions. Philosophical Psychology, 24(6), 803–823.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Woodward, J. (2003). Making things happen: A theory of causal explanation. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Yablo, S. (2002). De facto dependence. Journal of Philosophy, 99(3), 130–148.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Personalised recommendations