University of Wisconsin–Madison

AHA’s Take On: Free Will and Determinism

Last time at AHA, the topic of discussion was free will and determinism, a new and provocative topic for many of those attending. The presenters, Mark and Chris, gave each arriving member a survey which asked what they believe about free will.


  • Free Will-ist:     17%
  • Compatibilist:    11%
  • Determinist:      16%
  • Don’t Know-ist:  56%


Most people didn’t know what they believed about free will, so Chris and Mark gave the group some definitions and arguments to work with. Once the discussion got going, AHA had a broad range of ideas and opinions.


Free will is defined as the ability of an individual to choose what they do, while determinism is the idea that all events — including the actions taken by humans — are determined by things other than will. Compatibilism is a broader term for a combination of the two.


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Many of the unsure AHA members were swayed towards determinism when the presenters brought up a study in which brain scanners were used by researchers to predict which button the participants would press (left or right) — before the participants were aware that they had decided.



One member stated that free will may be an emergent property of having a larger brain, that the ability to decide is linked to cognition. Another member countered that there is no reason to believe that choice is real, seeing as everything about humans boils down to the atomic level, and particles don’t behave any differently than they normally would because of the actions of people.


The possibility of compatibilism was entertained — what if the human experience is a combination of free will and determinism? Many members agreed that determinism can be accepted at the same time as agency, since agency isn’t necessarily free will. Others said that compatibilism is a compromise of sorts for those who can’t reconcile the harsh reality of determinism.


The theme of free will had some obvious applicable areas, like criminal justice and placing blame for crime. When asked how to address crime and punish criminals, AHA (while mostly accepting determinism) believed that it just doesn’t make any sense to have no trial and consequences for wrongdoers. Some believed that the focus of law enforcement and criminal courts should be justice, while others argued that the focus should really be on rehabilitation.


As the meeting wrapped up, everyone filled out the same survey again. The results were intriguing:


  • Free Will-ist:     6%
  • Compatibilist:    39%
  • Determinist:      44%
  • Don’t Know-ist:  11%


Lots of minds had been changed, and lots of people went from not knowing to having an opinion on the matter.

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