Is it Possible that Free Will Is Impossible?



(The FreeThinking Theist)


May 29, 2018

Galen Strawson, a philosopher at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that free will is not only false — but impossible! In a recent interview on Closer to Truth, Strawson provides an argument which he believes demonstrates the truth of determinism. That is to say, this particular philosopher contends that libertarian freedom (namely, the “ability to do otherwise”) is only an illusion.

He goes on to say that even if he were to grant an immaterial soul — which would not be the kind of thing causally determined by physics and chemistry — that free will would still be impossible! He concludes that genuine freedom and moral responsibility do not exist. However, we are causally determined to think we possess the ability to do otherwise and the ability make moral decisions. On Strawson’s view, those who believe we possess libertarian free will are merely determined to be wrong, but also determined to think we are right (based on our preferences which are not up to us).[1]

Strawson’s argument goes as follows:

1. When we act, we do what we do because of the way we are.

2. To be truly responsible for the way we act, we have to be truly responsible for how we are.

3. We cannot be ultimately responsible for the way we are.

4. Therefore, we cannot be free.

Invalid Argument

The first problem is that this argument, as it has been presented, is not valid and thus, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The word “free” in the conclusion is found nowhere in the preceding premises. To be fair, although I personally would have attempted to to be more careful if I were providing one of my arguments on “Closer to Truth,” Strawson was engaged in an interview and might have erred as he was speaking off the top of his head. Thus, to be charitable I will assume that he would have worded the argument in the following manner if he were to be more careful (allow me to strengthen his syllogism):

1. When we act, we necessarily do what we do because of the way we are.

2. Only if we possess libertarian free will can we be truly responsible for the way we are.

3. We cannot be ultimately responsible for the way we are.

4. Therefore, we cannot possess libertarian free will.

5. Therefore, we cannot be responsible for the way we act.

Unsound Argument 

Although the updated argument is now valid, it is still not sound because at least one premise is false. Thus, the two conclusions are not supported by the premises. The first problem with the stronger formulation of Strawson’s argument against free will is that Strawson does not seem to have a good understanding of free will. The term “libertarian free will” (hereafter LFW) is an “accordion term” that can be defined in several manners. Strawson only seems to be dealing with one specific understanding of the term (consider the different manners in which libertarian freedom can be defined and understood in my article entitled What is Libertarian Free Will?)

With that said, LFW is usually boiled down to one or two essential ingredients. That is, if one possesses LFW, then at least occasionally they have…

1- No external deterministic causes.

And perhaps…

2- The ability to think and/or act otherwise.

Robert Kane described LFW as “agents capable of influencing the world in various ways,” and that “open alternatives . . . lie before us.” He goes on to say that if LFW is possessed by humans, then

it is ‘up to us’ what we choose and how we act; and this means we could have chosen otherwise. . . This ‘up-to-us-ness’ also suggests that the ultimate sources of our actions lie in us and not outside us in factors beyond our control. (Four Views on Free Will, 5)

After surveying all these different manners of defining LFW, it seems that Strawson’s argument against libertarian freedom only deals with the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) also known as the “ability to do otherwise.” While I argue that rationality demands the PAP when it comes to thinking, I do note that libertarian freedom could still attain in some instances where an ability to do otherwise is not possible (See Freethinking Needs the PAP). That is, the PAP is not necessarily entailed by libertarian freedom. However, libertarian freedom is entailed by the PAP. Thus, if one can demonstrate the PAP (as I believe I have), then one has demonstrated LFW.

Now that libertarian free will is properly understood, consider each premise of Strawson’s strengthened argument. The first premise is as follows:

“1. When we act, we necessarily do what we do because of the way we are.”

As Alvin Plantinga might say in response: “Why think a thing like that?” Strawson asserts that “the way we are” determines our preferences and that we always act according to our preferences. This proposition might be true some of the time, but no reason has been offered to think that this must be true all of the time or that it is always necessarily the case. Strawson seems to assume a view similar to compatibilism (a view of “free will” which we would probably both agree is anything but free). Be that as it may, there are other views to consider.

Moreover, why can it not be the case that “the way we are” is based on the fact that we are the kind of thing which is designed to be neutral with an ability to make decisions — not based on “preferences,” but rather, based on rationality and truth? If all choices are always based on mere “preferences,” then Strawson’s so-called “choice” to reject free will is not based on objective truth. Rather, the only reason he rejects the idea of libertarian freedom is because of the fact that he simply possesses a subjective preference for determinism based on “the way he is” (just as he might subjectively prefer chocolate over vanilla).

A major problem arises on Strawson’s view: According to Strawson’s own beliefs, the only reason he thinks his view is true is because he has a subjective preference for this particular view. However, selecting a view aimed at subjective personal preference is vastly different than selecting a view based on objective truth.[2] If the only reason Strawson thinks his view is true is based on how “the way he is” (which according to him is not up to him) has determined, then he stands in no epistemic position to know if his determined preference corresponds to reality — or not. It follows that Strawson cannot rationally affirm that his “preferred beliefs” are true, and thus, he stands in no position to justify his claims.

If one cannot provide justification for a claim, then his or her claim is not a knowledge claim. No, the claim is nothing but a question-begging assumption (a logical fallacy). With this in mind, it is vital to remember that any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all.

This provides a significant defeater to the first premise, which is a good reason to reject it. In fact, it is self-defeating to affirm it and thus, one ought to reject it (at least if one is free to reject irrational beliefs in favor of rational beliefs)! Since the first premise fails, the entire argument collapses and his conclusions do not follow.

More Problems 

Since the first premise of the argument has been defeated there is no need to examine the other premises. However, to be prudent, consider other “logical holes” in Strawson’s argument. The second premise states:

“2. Only if we possess libertarian free will can we be truly responsible for the way we are.”

On this point Strawson and I are on the same page. I agree with this premise! The next premise, however, is another matter.

3. We cannot be ultimately responsible for the way we are.

Strawson argues that we cannot possess free will because in order to have free will, we would have to choose our nature that produces our choices, and we cannot ultimately choose our nature or create ourselves “causa sui.” I would first counter that he seems to be begging the question in favor of determinism. He seems to be assuming either that God does not exist, or if God does exist that He could not possess LFW, or that God could not choose to create humanity in His image (or better, “likeness”) so that we have the same ability as God (in a limited sense) — to choose between options in accord with our nature.

Why can’t human nature be like that?

If human nature includes the ability to freely choose between options in accord with our nature, then perhaps some of these options from which we can select include both rational and irrational beliefs. If one does not possess the ability to reject irrational thoughts and beliefs in favor of rational thoughts and beliefs, then one cannot truly be a rational agent. The philosopher of mind, John Searle makes it clear:

“Rationality is only possible where irrationality is possible. But the possibility of each requires freedom. So in order to behave rationally I can do so only if I am free to make any of a number of possible choices and have open the possibility of behaving irrationally . . . When we perform conscious voluntary actions, we typically have a sense of alternative possibilities.” (Rationality in Action:2001:66-67)

It seems to me, contrary to Strawson’s beleifs, that we are responsible for what we become — at least SOME of the time. Of course I cannot be responsible for everything about the way I am. For example, I had no ability to choose my DNA or the fact that I had an appendicitis attack in the 1990s. I did not choose the color of my eyes, nor did I choose to have a receding hair line. I also may not have a choice whether or not I will act according to my beliefs. However, I contend that I possess the ability to ultimately choose some of my beliefs indirectly, which in turn might determine some of my actions. If I am correct, then I am ultimately responsible for those actions which are determined by the beliefs in which I freely chose.

One way in which this would certainly seem to be possible is if “the way we are” is determined by God. However, this “way we are” is in “the image of God” being truly free and “able” to choose between options in accord with our nature (See The Image of God). This delves into deep philosophical conversations regarding indirect doxastic voluntarism and self-forming actions (See Can We Choose Our Beliefs?).

One might reject the idea that we can ever freely choose any of our beliefs. However, if one makes that move, then — to be logically consistent — one must also affirm that he or she has not freely chosen to believe that we cannot ever choose any of our beliefs (not to mention our thoughts about our beliefs or our beliefs about our thoughts). Thus, the determinist stands in no position to evaluate or judge his or her own beliefs — or the beliefs of anyone else who disagrees.

Indeed, a sense of vertigo is warranted.

Bottom line: If one affirms determinism, then one also believes that he or she has no ability to reject their belief in determinism (even if the belief is false).


An advocate of Strawson’s argument against libertarian free will would have to demonstrate why the defeaters I have lodged against two of his premises fail (if only one refutation passes then the entire argument collapses). Until this is accomplished, one is quite rational in stating that libertarian free will is possible. In fact, a rational agent ought to affirm much more than the mere possibility of libertarian free will. He or she should affirm the reality of libertarian freedom.

Stay reasonable (Acts 17:2),

Tim Stratton


[1] This view is quite similar (if not identical) with the view known as “Compatibilism.” Many compatibilists argue that our nature — which is not up to us — causally determines our wants and desires (so those are not up to us either), and these wants, desires, and preferences causally determine all our choices. Although all compatibilists are determinists, they claim that we are still “free” as long as nothing stops us from choosing according to our desires (which are causally determined by something other than us.

[2] This is not only a problem for Strawson, but also for compatibilists who claim all of their beliefs are based on their greatest desires which is based on their nature which is not up to them. Indeed, Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) comes to mind as the EAAN shows that if naturalism true, then one’s beliefs are merely selected for the purpose of survival. If this is the case, then we stand in no epistemic position to know if our beliefs are true (since our beliefs would be aimed at survival as opposed to truth). The compatibilist faces the same problem for a different reason.


About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

Learn More

More from this author