On determinism and free will – Some reflections


Leandro Castelluccio

(Image obtained from: link)



This essay has the purpose of providing a conception about our nature regarding the voluntary and involuntary act, focusing on a specific aspect of the topic: the decision in the voluntary act.

Voluntary act, the decision

Within the framework of the voluntary act, it is usually given special emphasis in the aspect of the decision to how the decision is produced, a subject that carries out a project according to an end for example, and considering in turn, the causes in this context. These causes can be tastes and desires, what we do not necessarily control, what is specifically involuntary in our behavior. It could be said that these tastes generate particular broader desires, seen in conceptual terms.

In the decision to reach an end, we take into account the “for what end” and “the why”, although they may not be separate things. But that end is not yet known, so how is it that we want to get there? Well, we have the image of that end, and the exemplary characters that can give us a certain notion of the end, the values ​​that we manage that can take us to a certain end, and ultimately you get a “believe in a certain end”. Behind all this, in my opinion, there must be a force that drives us to achieve it.

Now, the objective of this essay is to deepen and raise my own opinions, given certain theories, about something in particular, and that is whether we have the ability to decide on something, and reach an end, seek a certain end, only because we want it that way, that is, thanks to an exercise of our will. The framework that I will be dealing with is that of Neuroscience, and what it has to tell us about the voluntary act, but it will be necessary to mention previously certain key concepts to understand this position.


It would seem, at first glance, that the voluntary act is in fact something real. We can all perceive certain control over our actions, we act as we want, we carry out the projects we want, we think about what we want, we remember what we want, etc. In this sense, we are able to make decisions based on certain premises and with the aim of reaching a specific goal, unknown yet, but that reflects a certain image in us based on certain ideals and values ​​that make us think that it is worthwhile, at least for us.

One might think that the way in which we do things or decide on things is determined by some previous learning, perhaps a genetic determinant, if we reduce the issue to a biological field, or perhaps some experience that we have recently had, or the result, in short, of a reciprocal relationship between all these things and others, as is usually stated today.

It can be said that determining specifically, for example, the learning that caused us to behave in a certain way, is something very difficult to do, and yet, if we manage to do it, we could modify it, re-learn an aspect that would change our way of acting and wanting, and in that sense we would be self-regulating, the determinant aspect would come from ourselves and thus we would gain certain level of freedom. Now, if we see it from a point of view of causes, this supposed freedom is only apparent, in the sense that we would always find a prior cause that determines the fact that we determine ourselves (as in the aforementioned self-determination), and following this cycle, there would never be a point where we find ourselves indeterminate.

This type of problems will always be present if we consider freedom as the absence of determinisms in the decision process and voluntary act. If we delve deeply into the way we operate, the ability to act and decide, the notion of freedom more specifically, it would seem to not exist. The objective here is not to review the deterministic conceptions of Psychology, as in psychoanalysis or behaviorism, but those given by the paradigm of Neuroscience, and what it has to tell us about the volitional act, our ability to decide and ultimately, about such concept of our freedom.

Sometimesit is said that science is blind to the freedom of people, and that it would handle some postulates that would seem to be self-validating through experimentation. There is talk of the repetition of the experiment and that this leaves out the uniqueness about a person’s behavior and life. I do not think that science is blind to freedom, we have to analyze what concept of freedom is being discussed. In reality, the problem is that philosophically and intuitively, it permeates a notion of human freedom as the ability to act, think or decide without the presence of determining causes. And precisely, I think that science has shown us that if we call that freedom, this would be an illusion, and it has shown us that on many levels. Here comes another issue, our expectations and sensitivities, many prefer to believe that human freedom does exist, at least to some degree, and I do not deny that it is not comforting to believe that we are free, but nothing can assure us that we do not live simply under an illusion, on the contrary, the evidence that arises from science affirms us the fact that such a concept of freedom does not exist, for which we must take care of associating self-esteem with the absence of causes.

If science really was submerged in a world of self-validating epistemological premises, then we would be inside an illusory world, in my opinion, but now every time I release an object it falls to the ground, every time I press the switch, the light turns on, every time I type a letter on the keyboard it appears on the monitor, thus, the models, postulates and theories have a correspondence with reality. Different are the premises that can be handled by a person and act as a filter in certain situations discarding information from reality that can contradict them and capturing what reaffirm them, therefore doing self-validation, as it occurs with the phenomenon called “tunnel vision” or as Beck in Psychology referred to as “selective abstraction”, which represents a logical error in the processing of information. It happens also when a person believes that others simply do not like his presence and he acts through that idea, effectively causing others not to like him and behaving as such, thus self-validating his own belief. Far from saying that this does not happen in the field of science due to errors, the scheme raised in science is that when you have a hypothesis and is contrasted with reality through the experiment, it can be rejected. The strictness of the guidelines used in the experiment is necessary to be able to subsequently establish cause-effect relationships that are given by known and manipulated variables. The conclusions that come out of the experiment are not simply valid for the experiment, but for reality itself (at an ultimate level). When something is confirmed in the experiment, this is valid in all possible applicable situations. The laws that we have discovered and verified here on Earth would thus be valid in all the confines of the universe, as long as the conditions are fulfilled.

In a second level of this discussion, it is important to clarify the notion of Neuroscience on the mind because it clarifies the way in which we operate.

Two conceptions have been raised throughout history in relation to the constituent elements of our world. On the one hand is the position that could be called “dualistic” that considers that the universe is made up of two classes of entities: matter and a kind of immaterial substance. This position is reflected in the dualistic philosophy of Descartes in relation to the nature of the mind. On the other hand, we find the “monistic” position that says that the universe is formed by matter and energy. Currently most scientists have a monist position, especially in the field of Neuroscience. Descartes’ dualistic stance of our nature as mind (immaterial substance) on one side and body on the other seems to have lost strength nowadays. Other conceptions have emerged, such as functionalism, identity theory or the theory of eliminative materialism. Personally, I think that a monistic position is the most sensible one to take into account, given that we do not have any evidence of immaterial entities or substances (in the sense of different from matter-energy) and we do not see how these could affect the world. If we consider that our mind is a primordial result of an immaterial entity, we would be going against the current, for example, of all the evidence gathered by neuroscientists until now about what we call mental states and how they depend on our brain. In a certain sense, we would be committing a violation of Ockham’s razor, since if we consider that we have thoughts, feelings and others of a conscious nature, and we have a brain, why attribute these aspects to something unknown and intangible, when we have sufficient evidence of the involvement of the brain in these aspects? The most parsimonious explanation is that the brain expresses these thoughts and feelings, at least at some level, without denying the involvement of other entities in the construction of what we call mind.

The vision of things and our psychic nature as material implies a very important question, and is that if matter is subject to laws that determine the phenomena, what makes us not determined by similar laws?

First of all, if we wanted, for example, to raise an arm, certain groups of neurons should be activated, those that control the movements that we want to execute, but how can we activate a group of neurons? As subjects, we could not. The initiation of an action potential, for example, that which allows transmitting nerve impulses, requires a process of opening sodium ion channels in the axon mound generally (part of the neuron). At this level, the phenomena depend on physical and chemical properties and on the characteristics of the biological structures at play, where to unleash an action potential, a certain trigger threshold must be overcome thanks to the action of potential graduates that are added given the connections with other neurons. The latter, to send a signal, must also go through the same processes (Carlson, 2006). We could say that we cannot consciously activate a sodium channel, such phenomena are beyond our competence. And what’s more, if we consciously wanted to do this, we would need to activate those processes in the first place to be conscious of wanting to do it, which we can not do voluntarily, since we can not be conscious before being conscious, it is paradoxical, so the phenomena must occur at a point in an unconscious environment, which would escape our will. We can see it this way: for me to be able to lift an arm in a certain way, first the process must be gestated in an unconscious environment, so different activation patterns will express the desire to move the arm, and then the act will be carried out. But if it arises from an unconscious domain and we cannot control it, then the whole supposedly volitional act ceases to be so. This is what an experiment carried out by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s would demonstrate (Libet, Gleason, Wright, & Pearl, 1983, Libet, 1999). In this experiment, Libet asked subjects to choose a certain moment that they wanted to make a movement as he analyzed the brain activity of those subjects. Then Libet discovered that the brain was put into operation for that activity half a second before the subject even made the decision to move, in other words, the unconscious brain activity that led to the will or conscious decision to move began half a second before the person consciously decided to do it. The “mass” of electric charge was called “readiness potential”. Libet’s findings have suggested that a subject’s decisions are first shaped and come from an unconscious level, and are then translated into a “conscious decision”. The fact that the subject believes that everything happened under his will is exclusively due to the hindsight of the event. In other words, what Libet found is that the unconscious processes are responsible for the “volitional act” and free will does not come into play at any time. When the brain is activated to perform a certain behavior before we even have the intention to manifest such behavior, the capacity of our conscience to carry out an act does not seem to exist. In any case, Libet proposes a space in his model for free will with what he calls the power of the veto, which says that the conscious efforts of the subject can suppress the unconscious impulses. However, this does not mean for Libet that unconsciously manifested actions depend on the confirmation of consciousness, rather it is the fact that consciousness has the power to deny the actualization of unconscious impulses, but can not originate them. In addition, we still have the problem of activating a neural activity pattern, for example, so that the brain “realizes” that it has manifested a certain behavior, which implies information processing. And if we consider the planning of activities in time, say the activities of tomorrow, or in a little while, the switch of the consciousness of the milliseconds would be insignificant (Libet, Gleason, Wright, & Pearl, 1983, Libet, 1999).

If the self-consciousness that would lead us to the volitional phenomena, to the decisions based on the knowledge of ourselves, apparently does not fulfill according to these experiments any function, why do we possess it? A certain conception of what consciousness is can give us an answer.

Some experiments have been carried out with patients with split-brain (patients whose corpus callosum has been sectioned that causes both hemispheres of the brain to be separated, without any communication), which have contributed certain notions about the nature of consciousness (Carlson, 2006). Neil Carlson in his book Physiology of behavior, gives the example of feeling a certain smell when you have a divided brain. The olfactory system, unlike other sensory systems, is not crossed, that is, the information (smells) perceived in the left nasal window are processed by the left hemisphere, while the smells captured by the right nasal window are processed by the right hemisphere Now, for most individuals, the regions responsible for verbal communication are lateralized in the left hemisphere. What happens when a patient with a divided brain has an aroma near his nose, but with the left nasal window covered, is that he does not consciously perceive the aroma. However, the right hemisphere identifies it (the right nasal window is uncovered), if the person is asked to point out from a set of objects the one that corresponds to the aroma, he does so, only using his left hand, controlled by the right hemisphere (which detected the aroma), but the person can not consciously perceive it, since the information does not reach the centers responsible for verbal communication lateralized to a large extent in the left hemisphere. On the contrary, if the subject is given a scent with the left nasal window uncovered, he can perceive it and say what it is, given that the information reaches the regions of the left hemisphere responsible for verbal communication. All this suggests that individuals become aware of things when information reaches the language regions. These conclusions derived from the experiment are very revealing, given that they could indicate that consciousness is really just the fruit of our ability to communicate and verbally reflect on our experience, and not something that has arisen directly. Maybe this is not quite so, only research can say over time if this is the case, but if so, it could tell us why we are aware if our brains do not give rise to consciousness in the decision act, as I mentioned earlier. The idea is that regardless of the precision of the conclusions of such an experiment, the question here is to make it clear that the notion of consciousness refers to a concrete phenomenon different from what the intuitive notion of “doing something consciously” refers to, where we suppose that consciousness implies a kind of self-determinism and a phenomenon from which things are carried on, a place that carries out acts or make decisions, so that consciousness and volitional act can actually refer to different and independent processes.

Final reflection

There is a thin line between considering the lack of free will as something liberating, considering that we are not ultimately responsible for what happens to us, and that there really is no free will to the point that we should leave everything to chance and not take initiatives about things. The profound change should be at the level of the way we think and our ability to influence what surrounds us. Because ultimately the human being makes decisions, acts and exercises a will, that this occurs under a caused process is something else, that does not exclude the possibility of making us responsible for our actions. But in turn, there could be positive effects if we take into account that responsibility is not an absolute burden because things happen under a certain course.

A good analogy is perhaps that of the tree. A tree grows according to a particular way given certain causes in its biology and environment. In the case of the human being, we can make the process more complex, but the idea is the same, we grow and behave according to certain causes. At no time does the tree or any organism stop manifesting itself in a caused process, this does not make the life of the organism possess les dignity or beauty, on the contrary, as human beings, understanding our condition makes us wiser, and like a tree, we arise, we develop and we have a particular life according to certain causes.


Carlson, N. R. (2006). Fisiología de la conducta Madrid Pearson Educacion.

Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W., & Pearl, D. K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential) the unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain106(3), 623-642.

Libet, B. (1999). Do we have free will?. Journal of consciousness studies6(8-9), 47-57.

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