What If No One Believed in Free Will?

Would there be terrible consequences?

Illustration: María Elena (Mani) Hinojosa

Free will can be understood in different ways, so first I should clarify that I’m not referring to the idea of being free to do as one wishes, in the sense that if one isn’t in prison, say, one is free to go outside for a walk; nor to the conventional notion of choosing some course of action of one’s accord, consciously and deliberately; but to what is also known as libertarian free will, which is a volition that is fundamentally autonomous, free from causal determinism and the laws of nature.

A common objection to the denial of free will is that, without believing in it, society would become dysfunctional. The pillars of society would collapse: our sense of personal responsibility and of right and wrong, our criminal justice system, our sense of purpose and autonomy, etc. According to this view, free will is thought to be at the very core of our conceptions of morality and meaning.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett believes that “the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.” And that “If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving ‘law and order’ without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.”

Dennett’s views on what he thinks would be the consequences of believing that free will is an illusion seem to be a major factor in his rejecting the idea. He favors instead a compatibilist view that I find unpersuasive. (Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent.)

Tellingly, in “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting”, Dennett writes:

It’s also feared that if we denied free will we’d fall prey to nihilism — we’d conclude that life is meaningless and reject all moral principles as groundless and arbitrary.

That free will must be true because not believing in it would be detrimental to society is not a valid argument. It’s entirely irrelevant to the question of whether free will is real.

The biologist Thomas Henry Huxley had little patience with appeal-to-consequences objections to his definition of free will (which wasn’t of the libertarian sort). It’s worth quoting at length what he had to say about them:

Still, it’s worth considering the likelihood of the consequences mentioned, which seem to be the most frequently put forward.


If we were to conceptualize free will, and then meaning and morality, as mere human constructs — ultimately pointless constructs, even — probably our human nature could withstand the assault, in the sense that our thirst for life, our desires and ambitions, our sense of meaning and purpose would be little affected. Some ideas are too abstract, too removed from how we experience life to have a significant impact on our psychology.

Apathy and fatalism

Why bother with anything if our fate is already determined, if one has no control over it? So the argument goes. But not much, if anything, would change in our day-to-day life from a denial of free will. Here too, our human nature would see to that. We’d still have our wishes and motivations, not to mention our bodily needs. Even in the unlikely event that we were succumbing to feelings of despondency, the minute we were hungry (for example), we’d rise from our philosophy-induced slumber and go look for something to eat.

Our system of justice would fall apart

Even though I think our nature would effectively combat any incipient feelings of apathy and nihilism resulting from our dismissal of free will, we’re certainly not impervious to ideas, even rarefied and “unnatural” ones (I readily admit that the idea that free will is an illusion falls in this category, as it is decidedly counterintuitive).

Thus if we really internalized, even if just intellectually, the notion that there’s no free will, our justice system might in fact become less harsh, as we’d have to realize that punishment for punishment’s sake is senseless. It might become more utilitarian (seeking to discourage wrongdoing) and less retributive.

We might still need to lock up criminals for public safety and deterrence, but hopefully any inclination towards cruelty, as well as any notions of revenge and deserved punishment — that making someone suffer is their just deserts — would tend to weaken, since, again, we’d recognize that it is illogical, and in fact immoral.

For example, we could conclude that a given corrective measure (“punishment”) should never be harsher than needed for it to achieve the desired deterrent effect.

Even if we reject libertarian free will, the more conventional concept of free will can still be very useful when talking at the level of human psychology. In fact it is crucial for determining when we may need to “punish” someone.

At this level people are presumed to have free will when they are aware of what they’re doing, are doing it deliberately, and are unencumbered by any overwhelming force, whether physical or psychological, that might be dictating their actions. Or, put differently, a strong deterrent could make them reconsider an inclination to break the law, for example, whereas the same deterrent would have no such effect on someone who is insane.

Absent free will so understood, punishment to discourage a person from breaking the law in the future, “to teach him a lesson”, wouldn’t make sense, because the person was not his “normal self”, or didn’t have the capacity to be aware of or in control of his actions.

This is of course pretty much the way our justice system already determines guilt. Again the key difference would be that if we rejected free will we should logically reject retributive justice. We’d “punish” someone solely for deterrence. And if a dangerous offender were deemed not to be quite guilty due to extenuating circumstances, we might still have to remove him from society for safety reasons.

Some people may object that if there’s no libertarian free will, any system that still relies on punishment as deterrence would be an incongruity, since, after all, why would we be at all deterred by anything if all our actions are predetermined anyway? This objection has no merit. No free will doesn’t mean that we can’t react to what we anticipate will be the consequences of our actions. It’s like when we teach a dog certain behaviors through rewards and punishments. It doesn’t matter one bit that the dog has no free will. If a dog is thought to have some sort of free will, we can think instead of a very advanced computer program, a blind and unconscious program designed to react and adapt to changing conditions, to learn how to achieve a given goal as it attempts different approaches and sees what works and what doesn’t. Let’s embed the program in a robot. As it tries to achieve whatever goal it’s been given, the robot will encounter obstacles and promising leads. It’ll then learn to avoid the former and pursue the latter. It’s just a program reacting to its environment. No free will is needed for the robot to respond to it. Of course we’re far more sophisticated and complex than a dog or such a robot, but we’re not fundamentally different in how we pursue our goals (programmed in us by evolution and culture, by nature and nurture) and react and adapt to our environment and our experiences.


It appears, then, that the doom-and-gloom arguments often brandished against doing away with the notion of free will do not hold much water. If anything, we might become less judgmental and more understanding of one another, and we’d likely reform our criminal justice system to make it more rational and humane. Even so, it’s not at all certain that our interpersonal relations would be much affected. Some of our emotions are too entrenched in our nature for us to subdue them at will, however much we may want to do so following what we’d consider a more rational approach. If someone took advantage of us, for example, would we be better able to control our consequent anger just because we now understand that there is no free will? Not likely. And it’s not even clear that controlling our anger would be a better response. Indeed, our anger signals that we’re not to be messed with. It acts as a powerful deterrent. It may thus be the most rational response, after all. Assuming we could manage to adjust some of the emotions that we tend to naturally feel in our personal and direct relations with others, it may not be easy to determine for which ones we should strive to do so upon the acceptance that free will is an illusion.

PS: A catch-22?

Whether one believes in free will or not, there seem to be circumstances in which something of a paradox may arise: Suppose that, before committing a crime, a person is certain that he’ll get caught and that the consequent penalty, of which he’s fully aware, will cause him considerably more suffering than whatever satisfaction he expects to obtain from the intended crime; yet he chooses to proceed all the same. In such a case, it would seem logical to conclude that the person was insane or not in control of his faculties and should therefore be, if not exonerated, at least given a sentence far less harsh than the one corresponding to the crime in question. Yet if that became common practice, the deterrent effect of the originally intended penalty would disappear; so, unfortunately, it must prevail (no leniency) — however unjust it may seem.

Interested in natural selection, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, science in general, human nature, consciousness, philosophy and ethics.

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