Amongst the many obstructions to settling the ancient arguments about human free will and freedom, including whether these exist at all, has been the sheer difficulty of identifying what, precisely, a case for free will rather than determination is about. O’Connor (1971) and Morgenbesser and Walsh (1962) have both commented that ‘libertarians’ (a term with its special meaning in this context referring to those who both reject any idea that free will and determination could be reconciled in a meaningful sense, and hold that in reality we are not determined and do have free will and freedom in an extensive sense) seem to find it hard to explain exactly what they are arguing for, whereas ‘determinists’ who say we do not have free will have no such problem. I hope that this essay will take us some way toward clarifying that matter, as well as drawing attention to the powerful, and changing, bearing of technology and technical feasibility on the whole issue of freedom. I do not in fact intend to argue a fully libertarian case here, but rather to suggest that freedom, and indeed free will, have a limited and variable application. It might be possible to interpret the argument I will put about technology as an illustration of the metaphysical theory of becoming advocated by William E. Connolly (2011), although I have my doubts about the way Connolly makes his case.1

However, to proceed requires an attempt at definition of the concepts of ‘freedom’ and of ‘free will’, despite the vagueness which these, like many philosophical or ethical terms, seem to show. First, two points of explanantion on the reverse of the coin: 1. I employ the term ‘determination’ in an effort to distinguish between ‘determinism’ as the metaphysical view that reality, including ourselves, is subject to determination and the condition which that view describes. 2. In his explantion of determinism, Sam Harris (2023) is at pains to avoid the impression that determinism means there is no point to effort or living a good life. He emphasises that determinsim is not fatalism. In metaphysical terms there is indeed a clear distinction between those two as determinist views do not accept any kind of controlling power or 'fate' which determines events. However, in practical terms the distinction between causal determination and a (primitive) fatalism is perhaps rather less clear. As regards freedom, a definition which seems to suggest itself as most suitable for expressing the way freedom appears in everyday life, and in moral questions, as well as providing a simple contrast with determination, is that freedom is the ability to make an effective choice between alternative courses of action or ways of living. Yet this definition turns out to be liable to dispute in more ways than one. A very old issue which arises here is with those philosophers, sometimes referred to as ‘classical compatibilists’ who have adopted the position that freedom and determination are compatible with one another on the basis of a distinction between direct compulsion, which they acknowledge does exclude freedom (and therefore renders free will ineffectual), and whatever forms of causative determination may be found to exist in the natural world and ordinary course of human life in particular which they say do not exclude freedom. Now, in this argument, common amongst the British empiricists from Hume onward, ‘freedom’ is typically understood as simply ability to follow one’s desires and inclinations without prohibition. Thus the compatibilist position seeks to keep things simple by treating desires as a basic given. But things are taken further in the more recent formulation by Frankfurt (1969) in which the ‘Principle of Alternative Possibilities’, explicitly included in the above definition of freedom, is dismissed altogether. Frankfurt maintains that provided I want to do something, I can be treated as ‘free’ in doing it even if there is no alternative available. The issues here are discussed more fully in essay 11, but it is important to point out here that a definition of freedom which contains the idea of alternatives being available to an agent described as ‘free’ has the advantage of being able to take account of the way technology in particular throws up choices (between alternatives), some of which will be actually new choices opening up new moral dilemmas. The position into which such choices drive people cannot be understood merely in terms of absence of coercion or legal prohibitions. Simply there can be a moral issue confronting free agents in the first place about whether to welcome a new technique like stem cell treatments for genetic diseases, or to prohibit it. As such choices naturally become political in nature, any supposedly free society will be liable to find itself making free choices about what restrictions, if any, to impose on ‘freedom’. To some degree, that kind of dimension has always been present in politics, but technologies now emerging threaten a radical extension of choices which can reach down to people’s own personal characteristics and abilities. In the case of interpreting freedom simplicity may be bought at the expense of failing to recognise the degree to which we can work on our desires, emotions, and psychological states generally, the very things which compatibilist philosophers claim to treat as an unalterable given.

If, at this stage, we accept a definition of freedom on the above lines, then we may in turn define ‘free will’ as a volition which is capable of making an effective choice between alternative courses of action or ways of living. This, of course, retains the idea of having distinct and in some sense realistic or feasible alternatives to choose from incorporated in the condition of freedom itself (presuming that if alternatives are not available freedom is non-existent or irrelevant, a presumption which some would refuse as has been seen), whilst adding the notion of a will or intention which is capable of selecting between the alternatives and then carrying the choice made into effect.

Now, very few people or thinkers have imagined that it would be either desirable or possible for people to have completely unlimited freedom and free will (except in some kind of more or less romantic vision of paradise). The most prominent modern exception is Sartre (1962: 95ff), and he based his case on an analysis of action which is suspect on various grounds; but especially to the point that that unconscious and habitual actions are commonplace. That angle would indicate that whilst a condition of nothingness in Sartre’s sense can occur (and frequently does in many contemporary societies) it is by no means the generic condition of man that Sartre claimed it to be. This situation helps to explain why there appears to be a problem with understanding the question of freedom in the first place: it is quite straightforward to say simply that we do not have freedom and free will at all, that everything we do is determined for us so we have no effective or ‘real’ choices to make. To say the opposite means either claiming there are no limits on our freedom at all, which appears bizarre by the nature of things, or else trying to sort out what those limits are, or should be. Mill, like other thinkers in the ‘compatibilist’ tradition traceable back to Aquinas, had tried to keep things relatively simple by taking our desires and inclinations as a given for purposes of freedom, so confining the discussion of limits to matters of coercion, legal or social constraints, and, in general, what restrictions on the freedom of each person others, or society as a whole, may legitimately put in place. The metaphysical question of whether links of causation, which might be held to determine our desires and inclinations in the first place (and might now be restated in Darwinian terms of evolved tendencies arising from our genetic makeup), leave freedom possible at all, was either to be left outside the discussion altogether or seen as not relevant. In this view the concept of ‘freedom’ or ‘free will’ should not be stretched to cover issues of causation, whilst the point was sometimes made that purely chaotic and arbitrary behaviour cannot display the elements of deliberation and responsibility characteristic of free action.2

The classic statement in modern thought of that theme was Hume’s (1972 [1740]) distinction between what he called ‘liberty of sponteneity’ and ‘liberty of indifference’. Hume thought it is the former, which is denied by coercion or compulsion, which is important to us, whereas the latter, which would run contrary to causation and what he termed ‘necessity’, is not. At this stage, it is worthwhile to note that Hume provides an intellectual illustration of a wider point: It may be far from the reality of the case that most people (be they intellectual thinkers or ordinary members of the public) will find a determinist conclusion to the argument uncomfortable and disturbing, as assumed in so much discussion of the issue between free will and determination. In everyday life there is nothing surprising or unusual about meeting people who happily profess belief in some kind of fatalism or predetermination of their lives. The precise form of such beliefs varies widely, including as it does simple notions of divine or supernatural predestination, or belief in fate, as well as various kinds of causal or evolutionary determinism. But however few are actually aware that Nietzsche, for example, took the stance that we are best served simply accepting our fate and doing without an illusion of free will, they seem to follow his prescription without undue disturbance. Hume (1972, 2000) points us toward seeing why a determinist position can be actually the more comfortable when he supports his case for ‘the principle of necessity’ being central to human affairs, as well as the natural world generally, by referring to the regularities which people expect and rely on for their everyday activities. Hume gives illustrations like the artisan who expects the protection of the magistrate or the student of history who relies on the veracity of the historian. If unlimited free will means a complete ‘liberty of indifference’ whereby we can push aside all the regularities and predictability that causation implies, not to mention acting without any constraint or discipline whatever, then it should be expected that most people will find that frightening and with good reason. In effect Hume offered a way to sort out how to limit freedom (or ‘liberty’ as it was commonly called in the eighteenth century) by confining its terms of reference to absence of compulsion by other human agencies, be they individuals or organisations, and leaving it that freedom is ability to follow our desires and inclinations without such compulsion. Like many later philosophers Hume was content to leave my ‘freedom’ as ability to do what I wish subject to prescriptive laws of the society in which I live, and say that it is not a proper concern to seek (or avoid) freedom from descriptive laws, such as laws of psychology or genetics, relating to how I come to have particular inclinations in the first place.

In the eighteenth century it still seemed reasonable to say that many features of human life and conduct are reliable and predictable come what may, but in more recent times it has become much harder to see exactly what those regularities might be in all times and in all situations, as distinct from the regularities of particular groups and occasions. For example, Hume felt perfectly able to apply the principle of necessity, by which he meant observed regularity, to ‘the sentiments, actions and passions of the two sexes, of which the one are distinguished by force and maturity, the other by their delicacy and softness’. To say the least, it is unclear that either sex could be thus described rather than in very different terms emphasising, for instance, irrational and immature behaviour of men as well as women, whilst ‘delicacy’ and ‘softness’ might be thought generally conspicuous by their absence. More recent history has seen a sequence of rapid and sometimes violent changes, not only at the level of politics and public affairs, but also in people’s everyday lives, which has become increasingly apparent since the industrial revolution and recurrent turmoil from the American and French revolutions to the world wars and on to the twenty-first century. With the return of religion to centre stage in political and social conflicts in much of the world, it will be still harder to isolate any cultural, and even personal, characteristics which may be taken as regular and reliable presences. The part played by technology will be discussed presently, but at this point it is important to recognise that rapid social and political change has already been making it hard to identify which regularities remain universal, and presumably not subject to decision even in situations where compulsion is not present. There is no reason to suppose such identification will not continue to be difficult in the future. The more so as development of genetic and molecular manipulation techniques reaches the point where those human desires and inclinations which Hume took as a given in the argument might become liable to change through conscious human action rather than simply unconscious process of evolution.

In reality, there always has been an issue here for the thesis that freedom and determination are mutually compatible. Techniques of mental and spiritual practice such as meditation and monasticism definitely aimed at working on and, indeed, changing the person’s desires and inclinations, have an ancient pedigree. In a Buddhist context the ultimate aim of spiritual practice is an enlightenment which is understood as eliminating the self so as to become part of the cosmic unity; such an aim can make sense only if the intention is indeed to change (or remove) just those desires which a more limited conception of freedom as absence of compulsion takes as given. Irrespective of whether any attempt is to be made to subdivide freedom into ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ forms, the crucial point is that alternatives appear to come available for people just in the realm where compatibilist argument assumes that no one need consider any alternative at all. The fact that comparatively few people follow these spiritual practices, at least in an advanced form, does not alter the fact that they can do so, and therefore may be understood as having a measure of ‘freedom’ either to follow these practices, thereby working on their desires and inclinations (their ‘passions’ and ‘sentiments’ as Hume would put it), or not to do so. Indeed, spiritual or mystical practice is sometimes spoken of as seeking to ‘free oneself’ from ordinary desires.

The issue, however, becomes enormously extended, both in depth and in reach to common people, as technologies become capable of operating not merely on our external environment but on what might be thought of as ourselves. Medical technology in general operates on the patient’s physical makeup, and there were already crude attempts to alter personality by lobotomy earlier in the twentieth century. But with increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the brain and nervous system, as well as genetic makeup, the scope for not only removing physical conditions with genetic causation like muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis but also for changing someone’s personality or even mental capacities, moves further from speculation into reality. Such technologies will open up new questions about a simple ‘materialist’ account of mental processes, in which physical causes are supposed to set the patterns of the mental (or spiritual) in a deterministic sense. It might be possible to push determination back to the motives we have for using such techniques, but then that threatens to drive the materialist argument back into an infinite regress. As, of course, physical processes, not least of life itself, are still present even when a conscious agent acts upon them technically, the argument strengthens for some more complex model of physical and mental relationships – perhaps on the interactive lines suggested by Popper’s (1965) theory, which will be discussed later.

Another version of the thesis that freedom and determinism are compatible comes from Richards’ (2000) attempt (which presupposes the connection between freedom and responsibility) to distinguish between ‘ordinary’ responsibility in everyday life and ‘ultimate’ responsibility for what we are or may become. Yet this distinction fails to provide any practical guidance in handling technologies which we can develop first for reasons of carrying out our ordinary responsibilities for healthcare and developing useful (and perhaps sustainable) industrial processes, and thereby making a professional livelihood, but which then threaten to reach down to a level of ultimate responsibility for being what we are. If we think of the matter in terms of the definition of freedom offered above, it might be said that emergence of technologies capable of working at the genetic and molecular levels opens up a further range of possible alternatives to practitioners and patients alike, reaching to a deeper level even than organ transplants have already done. In cases of genetic therapy directed at a life-threatening condition it can be held that there is still no alternative available in terms of ordinary responsibility of doctors and surgeons to their patients and ordinary responsibility of any individual for his or her survival. That position is the same as for any other form of medical treatment for life-threatening diseases. But if the techniques involved were to become capable of, for example, influencing genes involved in temperamental characteristics like combativeness or passivity which are not in any direct sense a matter of life and death for the subject but which can be seen as part of the self or person or personality in a defining sense, such as when we say ‘she has a volatile temper’, then we are indeed in the realm of (effective) choices between alternative courses of action. Although Richards’ position could thereby support legislation prohibiting use of such techniques, no philosophical position can prevent developments in technology capable of allowing alternatives to become available if a prohibition proved ineffectual or were removed. Generally debates on freedom, or free will, and determinism have not so far given due weight to the aspect of technical feasibility, and the way in which that changes the range of things which we can, and cannot, do. Put another way, the importance of technical feasibility for both setting and then shifting the limits on our freedom of action has not received adequate attention.

Genetic modification of food crops, for example, still does not impinge on ultimate responsibility for what humans are themselves although direct intervention on existing organisms is a major step beyond the selective breeding of plants and animals which has been practised for thousands of years. The practice of ‘germline therapy’ (treatments producing heritable alterations to the patient’s genome) arouses a new level of anxiety in some quarters just because it does introduce the potential for ultimate responsibility – sometimes crudely expressed in fears of ‘designer babies’. Yet once a technology exists in the sense of being feasible to use, whatever level of responsibility it entails applies in any event. Even if proposals for an international ban on germline therapy were accepted, we would then have to accept the responsibility for not using it. A ban removes an option (i.e., alternative) of such treatment from the point of view of people liable to pass on heritable diseases, and once germline therapy is technically feasible the choice remains of granting individual cases such an option through change in the legislation. The point about denial of a choice to individuals and families affected by genetic disease is shown up in the anxiety of many experts that if governments do not permit the technology private operators will come in (especially if sufferers can afford complex and expensive treatments). Such is the point of Sade and Khushf’s (1998) argument that this technology cannot be eliminated, and if it were prohibited in the US for instance it would emerge elsewhere with fewer resources to address the consequences.

What such examples show is that once a procedure or course of action becomes technically feasible it is shifted from the realm of the impossible, where freedom to do it and responsibility for doing it are irrelevant, to the realm of the possible where freedom (in sense of effective choice) to do it can apply and, therefore, responsibility for doing it can apply if the option of following the course of action concerned is taken. In turn, responsibility for not doing it can apply if the option of following that course of action is not taken. So, in the instance of germline therapy it becomes a moral and political issue whether researchers, whose funding is itself likely to be politically controversial, should be allowed to investigate its potential in an ever widening context and whether patients should be allowed to access it or not. Further, it becomes an issue of law enforcement as to whether they can in fact be prevented from doing so or not – as, for example, if germline therapy turns out to be accessible on the black market. Now, the compatibilist following the Humean approach has already admitted that the case would then be one of denial of freedom since an actual prohibition is involved – the question of whether that denial is well justified being a separate issue beside the immediate point here. Yet in any instance where a genetic therapy could be found to alter personality or inclinations to particular kinds of behaviour, it would then be influencing precisely those characteristics of the person which the argument for reconciling freedom and determinism from the time of Hobbes to date has taken as a given for the argument. Nor would it make sense in such cases to say that availability of alternative courses of action, or inaction, are not germane to freedom since it is the emergence of alternatives (not previously available) which sets the agenda for debate. Indeed, although it is far from being the case that all instances of germline therapy in fact have the potential to lead to alteration of personality or inclinations, and with the patient then being liable to pass the alterations on to descendants, some examples of ‘somatic therapy’ more commonly permitted may also do so, although in that case the alterations would not be heritable. In any event, what technologies appear to show is that there may be no need or justification for treating our desires and inclinations as given beyond a question of technical feasibility which would both vary between particular cases and change as technology develops.


Ironically, this sort of scenario appears to present less of a problem to a ‘hard’ determinist who has insisted that freedom and free will are fantasies with no real substance behind them, so that there never was any need to try to reconcile them with either patterns of causation in general or specific determinants of or constraints on human action in particular. (The hard determinist would deny any such reconciliation is possible.) No matter how far medical and industrial technologies might be capable of reaching into the physical structures behind our intimate makeup, it remains possible to contend that human actions and behaviour at each stage in history are, as they always have been, the outcome of our predetermined place in whatever system is held to be determinative. For example, the very development of particular medical and industrial technologies relates quite naturally to ordinary human motivations of survival, desire for success and prosperity (including for one’s descendants), and security which have prompted technical development throughout human history. Once again the danger of an infinite regress appears with this sort of argument. Yet provided that motivations themselves are not changed by whatever may be done with the technologies, including by whatever decisions are taken about what is permitted to be done with them, there seems no obvious reason to abandon a deterministic understanding of either the human situation in general or of individual human actions in particular. At this stage it is worthwhile noting that it is at least plausible to suggest that any attempt to use the technologies to make changes in human motivation, for instance to achieve the kind of reform of character hoped for from ‘social engineering’ earlier in the twentieth century would be found quite as alarming as any notion of ‘designer children’ engineered for spectacular success. Again freedom, individual or social, can be found every bit as disturbing as any form of determination.

Although determinism is, of course, a very old philosophical position with distinguished exponents like Spinoza long before more modern ideas and arguments about evolution and human behaviour first appeared at all, the field of argument here remains as open as ever. A major difference in the evolutionary arguments is to find determinism (or freedom and free will3), appearing in the guise of a scientific hypothesis or at least a philosophy claiming to be supported by scientific evidence, rather than as a position derived by reasoning from principles taken to be axiomatic in the manner of many earlier philosophies such as Spinoza’s. Now, Blackmore’s (1999) version of memetic determinism is itself an adaptation from deterministic varieties of ‘evolutionary psychology’ which depend upon the idea that our most deeply rooted characteristics and motivations are those which were ‘successful’ in our evolutionary past and can be expected to be most determinative – if not rigidly so. Blackmore’s theory keeps the basic idea of determining replicators which thrive within the life forms which carry them (rather in the manner of parasites), but, developing an idea first mooted by Dawkins (1976), transfers the agency of determination from genes, i.e., biological structures, to memes, i.e, ideas located in human brains which give rise to cultural practices. Yet she (1999: 238ff) actually goes further in rejecting free will as an illusion than most other proponents of evolutionary psychology. Now, the change of determinative agent does have certain advantages from the point of view of generating a convincing determinist theory. Blackmore’s (1999: 136-7) theory is able to account for features of contemporary society, in particular changes in attitudes and practices around sexuality like fading of taboos against masturbation and homosexuality or marriage practices which do not depend upon the number of children produced, that theories based on biology and replication of genes would struggle to make sense of. Further, Blackmore might be able to deal more successfully with a deeper problem for determinism in evolutionary form: that is, how we could come to create an ‘illusion’ like free will in the first place, if that illusion does not in fact reflect any real possibilities as to what we can do, so we must still do the same as we would have done without it. Such an illusion appears then to serve no ecological function and therefore to be a needless complication in human life which other animals manage well without. For free will as an illusion or distraction from reality could function even as a placebo only in the minimal sense of a comfort when no effective choice as to how to act is possible, like pills given to someone who is terminally and incurably ill when no containing, let alone curative, treatment is available. An analogy to a ‘placebo effect’ which actually stimulates the body’s self-healing powers, thereby having a physical effect on the processes of disease and recovery and changing the course of events from what would have happened if the placebo had not been used would be hard to make intelligible for an illusion of ‘free will’.4 If that were possible the determinist move which is often made of interpreting freedom and free will, or more accurately, the sense of freedom and free will, as a survival mechanism would remain open. But in that case the problem becomes one of explaining why a substantial number of people do not seem to need that survival mechanism anyway, as they do not share this sense that they have freedom and free will. Again, Blackmore's memetic determinism may not need to find an ecological role for the determination.

Now, those libertarians who might follow the ancient theme, exemplified by William of Ockham, of invoking our subjective experience of freedom as evidence that such actually exists as an objective reality, may not be able to prove their case simply by reference either to a placebo effect actually capable of stimulating a person’s strength or else the presumed futility of an illusion of free choice when no choice exists. The reason why Blackmore’s determinism is easier to hold logically is that it is easier to envisage an illusion of effective choice, which the notions of free will and freedom imply, capable of stimulating people to do things which they would not have done without that illusion, if the illusion is taken to be itself a determining replicator, rather than supposed to be merely serving some other replicator (such as genes) which would then appear not to need it at all. However, not only a libertarian case grounded on subjective experience, but this form of the determinist case also, is weakened by the sheer fact that some people do not share the subjective experience of freedom in their lives, i.e., they believe that their lives are determined in some way (sometimes even to a level of trivial detail like whether they ‘decided’ to go to the shops on Tuesday rather than Thursday if they then claim the car accident which befell them on Tuesday was predetermined). Similarly the case is weakened by the fact that we can readily find freedom a disturbing experience, in some cases more so than determination.

At the same time, the dimensions of technology and technical feasibility have already been introduced through a philosophy which does in fact say that freedom and determination are, after all, compatible, but which argues that in a very different way from that common amongst the British empiricists. The most familiar form of what I will call ‘historical compatibilism’ is the classical Marxist theme that the productive potential of modern technology and industry can enable us to leave behind a life of determination – that is, determination by need to survive in conditions of scarcity – for a life of freedom. The Marxian outlook always had major problems in this regard, especially in that like Hegel’s before it, it was much clearer about what form the process of historical determination takes than what form the subsequent condition of freedom would take. But it should be noticed that already with Marxism we find a doctrine which, instead of trying to relate determinism and freedom in metaphysical terms or else say simply that they cannot be related, seeks to relate them sociologically and claim a scientific basis for doing that. In contrast to a position like that of Hume, who argued that the two concepts are interlinked if they (especially freedom) are properly understood, Marx and his followers held that although determination and freedom in no way apply together at the same time, the one leads to the other. On that basis freedom is again interpreted as compatible with determination, but in the very different sense of being the outcome of an historical process which is supposed to connect them. The medium for that process and change in the Marxist picture is, of course, technology and the social relations it creates.

Despite the failure of Marx’s predictions for the future of society, and therefore for the form in which freedom might appear, Marxism can still have something to teach about the significance of technology for freedom and free will, and indeed for making clearer what they might amount to in reality. At least that can be so if one of the most familiar notions behind classical Marxism is jettisoned to take account of ecological realities not generally anticipated in the nineteenth century. The principal objection to the notion of human ‘mastery of Nature’ which Marxism shared with most thinking in its time is, of course, to a cavalier attitude to the limited resources which our place in a global ecology truly affords and which cannot be stretched indefinitely by technical innovation (as classical Marxism assumed). That may be explained in terms of underestimating the limits on our freedom which external environment imposes. But such limits need not apply so stringently to the more existential kinds of freedom that might open up with technologies applicable to ourselves, or what might be called our internal environment, both physical and mental or emotional. It can indeed be expected that such technologies, while certainly requiring energy and raw material inputs, would be less extravagant of such resources than the ones which we have used to work on the external environment. If so, ecological limits on our ability to manipulate the internal environment of human life – that is, precisely the kind of freedom which the Humean approach refuses to claim – would be actually looser than ecological limits on our ability to manipulate the external environment. In the meantime, the very pressure to find ways of reconciling or adapting the demands of human consumption for a population approaching some ten billions to the limits of an external environment can generate a motive for actually trying to use technologies capable of impinging on the self and its desires – not out of any dream of creating some kind of ‘superman’, but with the much more modest aim of assisting a reconciliation and adaptation process. For example, painful experiences with attempts at population control in India and China might encourage the desperate to seek gentler, and less coercive, remedies. In turn, if taking such ultimate responsibility is unacceptable, other technical procedures like GM crops may appear as an escape route.

Yet again, the argument here does not necessarily challenge the ‘hard’ determinist, who can simply point out that even if we turn to attempted manipulation of our desires (for instance, for status or prosperity), we may not be so much making ‘choices’ about our internal environment as merely once again following determination of survival. In the hypothetical example above attempts to manipulate human internal environment could be driven by survival determination, arising ultimately from the external environment. But the context of technologies of sufficient sophistication to be able to work upon internal and external environments alike does ensure a collapse of the old distinction between causative and coercive limits on our choices, or on the alternatives available to us. Further, an evolutionary determinist basing the case upon evolving replicators with determinative power, be they genes or memes (or both), may have to admit a measure of freedom arising from any technology which depends upon knowledge of environment and then conscious or deliberate management of it. Almost by its nature technology, which involves application of discovery about the environment as well as inherited knowledge of any kind, is going to invoke conscious activity in some degree. It is the degree of conscious activity which is crucial here. In so far as management of external environment includes awareness of any choices, as well as limits on choice, which apply, then at least a limited degree of freedom might be held to exist, although that could still be presumed to be the modest Humean form of freedom which obeys the promptings of desire, inclination, motive, and evolutionary causation of these. That much freedom might even have been available to our nomadic African ancestors who left water stores in safe locations to sustain them in drought. But once a technology penetrates into the internal environment, and utilises knowledge of that internal makeup of human beings themselves, then it becomes much harder to be sure that determining limits on freedom still apply, or identify what they might be. In cases where technology is being used purely for survival and there is but one way to provide for that, we can indeed understand that there is no choice whatever (individual persons may have a ‘choice’ of accepting death, whether on behalf of relatives or friends, or on behalf of some cause or commitment they hold, but a community as a whole hardly has such a ‘choice’ in any circumstances since no one is then left to benefit or to remember)5. Significantly, in view of arguments about our unconscious motivations and behaviour, we are frequently well aware of having no choice in matters of survival and would not pretend to having any measure of ‘freedom’ or ‘free will’ in those cases. No doubt if our ancestors encountered a situation where there was only one way to store their water, they would have been aware that no alternative, and therefore no choice, remained for them. In mortal danger we typically do what we have to do to survive and consciously do not care about being free. It is in different situations where other considerations than survival come into play, with alternatives then perceived to be available, that the question of working out how much, or what kind of, freedom we really have arises.

The logic of this kind of argument is to conclude, following Tallis (2000: 160-1), that freedom and free will are really matters of degree and will vary widely according to particular cases. Naturally, the hard determinist has to maintain that basically there is a relevant sense in which we still have no alternative to doing what we have to do whatever the circumstances. As we have seen, this case can still reasonably be made where technologies impinging on external environment are concerned. The case is harder – not impossible – when technologies impinging on internal environment come into play. But to say that freedom is commonly partial and variable means also taking issue with the libertarian who maintains that freedom and free will are necessarily generic to being human. In the first place, the instance of confronting mortal danger or, indeed, coercion makes clear that the human faculty of consciousness, and activation of the consciousness at that, does not entail freedom. Simply, we can be conscious of not having any freedom at all. In the case of coercion the point has been made that the will can remain ‘free’ even though the person is being prevented from carrying that will into effect. But even that hardly applies with mortal danger unless the person has already decided to take her own life; if I face a fast approaching train I have ‘free will’ to jump out of the way only in the minimal sense that I have not already decided upon suicide (that is, already decided against my own physical survival). In the more typical instance such cases mean that the person is aware of having no alternatives, and therefore choices, available. But in the very different case of practices in a traditional culture which are followed without conscious deliberation (except in the event of emergency or challenge from outside, contingencies which are themselves most likely to arise from technological developments like firearms in Europe which then impacted on other cultures elsewhere) there is once again no reason to suppose that freedom or free will play any part. Indeed, anyone with the temerity to display free will would be likely to be outcast from the community. But both examples indicate that the role of consciousness where freedom and free will are concerned is not to establish them as necessary components of human life in all times and places as libertarians are apt to suggest, but rather to manage freedom when alternatives are actually available and the person needs, or wishes, to make a choice between them. That can, of course, include fighting to overcome, reduce, or remove constraints, whether coercive or environmental, on one’s freedom. But the variations in degree of freedom which may be observed in these cases, all the way from no freedom whatever to a very extensive range of freedom, fit with the argument I have already put for viewing consciousness as an ability to recognise, and respond rapidly to, unfamiliar problems for which unconscious activity or ‘programming’ is not prepared.


The outline of a scheme which might develop the notion of degrees of freedom or variations in the scope for it into something more specific has already been put forward by Karl Popper (1965) in the form of an evolutionary indeterminism contrasting with the varied forms of evolutionary determinism. Popper rejected the assumption dating back to Hume that the only alternative to determinism is sheer chance, an assumption which contributed a backing for criticism of free will on the grounds that it leaves our lives inexplicable, chaotic, and irresponsible. He also avoided plain libertarianism; arguing instead for an idea of ‘plastic controls’ of our actions which recognises that there are physical and other limits on what we can do but which allows for conscious deliberation over how best to solve problems. Although Popper’s theory aims at flexibility and even introduces the aspect of technology through the notion of man evolving his plastic controls exosomatically, it does have the potential problem of implicitly treating evolution as ‘progress’ toward higher levels of control, especially argumentative and critical thought, by which we use sophisticated language to control our actions and processes. Treating evolution as progress not only runs contrary to the Darwinian view (including that of Darwin himself) of biological evolution as a purely random process with no teleological direction, but also to most contemporary thinking in a wider sense. Tallis and Pinker (2018) are unusual in seeking to rescue the idea of social progress dating back to the Enlightenment, even if Tallis does so in a modified form to take account of harsh experience of human life and behaviour following the emergence of a more technically sophisticated culture, whilst Pinker is at pains to stress that 'progress' is not an inevitable given and can be reversed at any stage. Even Tallis is anxious to avoid suggesting that evolution of consciousness implies any sort of progress from automatic and unconscious processes of life maintenance to conscious and deliberate action (which may include the element of freedom even if it does not always do so).6

Another possible objection to Popper’s approach comes from the argument deployed by Fischer (1994, 1998) and Ravizza (1998) which holds that control of any kind generates responsibility rather than freedom. It is true that we employ the concepts of control and responsibility in some contexts where freedom, and free will, have no place. For example, we talk of a weather system ‘controlling’ conditions of temperature, wind, rainfall, and so on, and of being ‘responsible’ for impacts that these conditions will have on the natural world, agriculture, leisure activities, transport, and so on. In extreme cases such as storm and drought weather systems can be responsible for disasters leading to profound economic damage and even great loss of life. But, of course, a weather system cannot have any form of either will or intention save as a poetic licence, nor can it make any kind of ‘choice’ between alternative courses of action. It is purely a part of the physical environment external to any living, or conscious, beings. That is to say, freedom and free will have no relevance to it.

However, once we narrow the focus of responsibility to the notion of moral responsibility, which has always been the chief concern of defenders of free will (not least those anxious to reconcile human moral responsibility with a theistic position which ascribes the role of creator of humanity to God) then the aspects of freedom and free will can be brought in. That is simply because the usual understanding of the term ‘moral’ implies an agent aware of her actions and capable of deciding about them in relation to certain values which she may have, which in turn implies that alternatives can be available. The one ethical system where moral value may not imply this, namely that of honour and shame, does not provide an exception to this argument since cases where honour or shame can attach to the person irrespective of her awareness or choices, such as her birth or the honour of her country, do not involve responsibility or control, at least of that person. Moreover, if the predictions by many forecasters of more extreme weather events induced by climate change resulting from human activities prove correct, then indirectly a measure of moral responsibility could then attach to the actions of weather systems – not, of course, to the weather systems themselves but to those whose activities had increased (say) their intensity or irregularity. Now, this points to the conclusion that Popper’s idea of plastic controls does lead into thinking about freedom, and free will, because it is just those forms of control and then responsibility which leave any scope for conscious deliberation about problem solving, i.e., leave us any choice as to what we can do, which open the door to freedom. Then, if the choice is effective and not illusory, the door is also open to alternative intentions or decisions, that is, ‘free will’. It is the presence of external controls or limits which ensures that the freedom is limited in degree. But the instance of weather systems in relation to climate change illustrates both the flexibility of these limits and, crucially, the impact of technology in shifting the limits so that the scope of freedom – and free will – shifts with them. Accordingly, we may suppose that the degree of deliberate control, and therefore moral repsonsibility, we have will determine the degree of freedom we have. In some instances related to technology and its impacts on the environment, external or internal, that degree may be actually measurable.

Very recently a different interactive theory - that is, involving interaction between freedom and determination - comes through the attempt by Pearl and Mackenzie (2018) to argue for the possibility of 'strong' AI (Artificial Intelligence) with a moral sense. Proceeding from the distinction between the neural level in humans where processes appear deterministic (barring quantum indeterminism) and the cognitive level where humans have a sense of options (perhaps) being available, they argue that an illusion of free will has computational benefits. In point of fact, the illustration they give of the soccer player who follows advice from his or her coach that she should have passed the ball to a different player (so using counterfactual thinking) would imply ability to adjust habits through conscious intent - not least to become as good at the game as possible - makes the notion of an illusion here very questionable.7 But in any event there would be a process of interaction between software programming and rational thought analogous to the neural and cognitive levels in humans.

Probably the most promising route, then, toward sharpening up the idea of degrees or levels of freedom available to human volitions would be an argument on the lines proposed by Popper, or perhaps Pearl and Mackenzie, but which leaves open the answer to two separate, but related, questions: (i) Is there a definite and regular pattern of increasing freedom related to technology? – This question raises two supplementary issues: (a) It connects with the continuing arguments about hominid evolution as to whether the apparent pattern of increasing brain size over several million years is to be interpreted as showing a pattern of ‘progress’ toward greater brain capacity because that has real and consistent evolutionary advantages, or whether the brain size expansion should be seen as something fortuitous which never need have occurred and might not continue in the future, (b) Popper and Donald (1991) have raised the issue of whether (exosomatic) technology permits a continuation of greater information use and storage without further expansion in biological brain capacity. (ii) Is there any connection between developing more powerful technologies bearing both on external and internal environments, and development of greater ability, moral or practical, to handle the technologies?

As there is no apparent prospect of a decisive answer to either question, I propose to confine this essay to the more modest conclusion that freedom and, therefore, free will are matters of degree and vary greatly with circumstances, but that the variety is intimately linked with technology. Indeed, it is perfectly reasonable to say that freedom correlates directly with the scope and power of technologies available to us without claiming that there is any necessary movement over history or evolution toward either greater freedom or greater ability to use freedom well (however the word ‘well’ is to be understood). That can make use of Popper’s contribution to the ancient, and still ongoing, argument about freedom and determinism without presenting hostages to a fortune which may, or may not, be already determined.


  1. Although Connolly’s concepts of emergent will and causation are likely to be valuable in making sense of any degree of ‘freedom’ in a metaphysical sense, the notion he uses of force fields is certainly apt to be misleading if it is more than just a metaphor.
  2. Popper’s (1965: 16) interpretation of freedom as not a matter of chance, but a ‘result of subtle interplay between something almost random or haphazard, and something like a restrictive or selective control’ such as aim or standard, offers an answer to that criticism. At the same time, the degree of randomness will itself be changed by technical capability; which illustrates that the very concept of free will, implying as it does intention, indicates a wish or desire to avoid leaving matters to chance.
  3. Although the revolution in physics during the early twentieth century brought the issue of scientific indeterminism sharply into view, that has been largely confined to the field of physics and especially the quantum realm. Now, some libertarian arguments have attempted to draw upon quantum indeterminism for a basis for freedom (especially in relation to consciousness), not least as quantum indeterminism is one of those developments in science and logic which has raised questions about the presumption of causal determinism itself. But at this stage the argument has not generally been developed into a wider form of scientific indeterminism which might show how indeterminism is more widely applicable – although it should be noted that as technology moves closer to the quantum realm and occasionally, as with experiments in particle physics, actually reaches it, quantum indeterminism (if proved to be valid) might become more relevant to human freedom and responsibility.
  4. Currently there is controversy both as regards the clarity of the placebo concept itself in medicine, and as to the presence or extent of a placebo effect. Further discussion and investigation may be found from, for instance, Kieule and Kiene (Nov 1996), ‘Placebo effect and placebo concept’, Altern Ther Health Med, 2(6): 39-54 and Hrobjartsson (May 2001), New England Journal of Medicine, 344(21): 1594-1602.
  5. Scruton (1980) advanced the point about commitments even in face of death in criticism of Hobbes and subsequent theorists who assumed that fear of death can serve as a final sanction. In terms of individual behaviour Scruton’s point is clearly valid for many instances ranging from war and revolution to personal sacrifice on behalf of friends or loved ones. However, the advent of mass destruction weapons and inordinately powerful technologies introduces the possibility of communal annihilation (and in this context ‘communal’ can mean global) which would eliminate any conceivable purpose to an individual sacrifice. This is another illustration of the way technology can change the terms of moral and intellectual argument itself.
  6. Tallis partly bases his case here on the claim that consciousness (including human consciousness) carries no evolutionary advantage. In my essay ‘The Independence of Consciousness’ (No. 4) and my book Ethics and Radical Freedom (2004) I have tried to argue that consciousness can be seen as advantageous in evolutionary terms if a distinction is made between problems which are regular or continuous, which unconscious or automatic process can handle rapidly and effectively, and unfamiliar and unpredictable problems where conscious action is likely to the faster and more effective.
  7. There is a tendency to which Pearl and Mackenzie may be subject, to cling to the idea of 'free will' as an illusion in an effort to meet presumed scientific credentials. However, if a machine were to be capable of adjusting its (software package generated) 'intentions' through rational thought, perhaps involving counterfactual logic and causal analysis, then it hardly makes sense to characterise the decision to apply that cognition as an illusion. That process could be fully determinative only if the machine were not permitted to alter its basic objectives (however defined). The analogy with the soccer player would then be if he or she were not permitted to consider giving up the game for some other pursuit.


  1. Blackmore, Susan, (1999), The Meme Machine, O U P, 136-7, 238ff.
  2. Connolly, William E., (2011), A World of Becoming, Duke University Press.
  3. Dawkins, Richard, (1976, 2nd edn 1989), The Selfish Gene, OUP, Ch. 11.
  4. Donald, Merlin, (1991), Origins of the Modern Mind, Harvard University Press.
  5. Fischer, John Martin, (1994), The Metaphysics of Free Will: A Study of Control, Blackwell. – and Ravizza, Mark, (1998), Responsibility and Control, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  6. Frankfurt, Harry, (1969), ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Philosophy’, Journal of Philosophy, Vol 66, No. 23, 829-839.
  7. Harris, Sam, (2023), 'Making Sense of Free Will', Episode 5 of the Essential Sam Harris (Making Sense podcast).
  8. Hume, David, (1972 [1740]), Treatise of Human Nature, P. S. Ardel (ed.), Fontana, Collins; Book II, Part III, Sect 1. — (2000) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Tom L. Beauchamp (ed.)., Clarendon Press; Sect 8: ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’.
  9. Marx, Karl, & Engels, Friedrich, (1970 [1846]), The German Ideology, C. J. Arthur (ed.), Lawrence & Wishart, London. — (1968 [1875]) ‘The Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Selected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London.
  10. Mill, John Stuart (1972 [1859]), On Liberty, J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.
  11. Morgenbesser, Sidney, & Walsh, James, (eds.), (1962), Free Will, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Introduction.
  12. O’Connor, D. J., (1971), Free Will, Macmillan.
  13. Pearl, Judea & Mackenzie, Dana, (2018), The Book of Why, Allen Lane, pp 358ff.
  14. Pinker. Steven, (2018), Enlightenment Now, Allen Lane, 43f, 220, 325ff.
  15. Popper, Karl, (1965), Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man, Arthur Holby Compton Memorial Lecture, Washington University.
  16. Richards, Janet Radcliffe, (2000), Human Nature after Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction, Routledge, London & New York.
  17. Sade, R. M., & Khushf J., (1998), ‘Gene Therapy: Ethical and Social Issues’, Journal of South Carolina Medical Association, 94(9): 406-410.
  18. Sartre, Jean-Paul, (1962 [1943]), ‘From Being and Nothingness’, Free Will, Sidney Morgenbesser & James Walsh (eds.), Prentice-Hall, Inc., 95-113.
  19. Tallis, Raymond, (2000), ‘Recovering the Conscious Agent’, The Raymond Tallis Reader, Michael Grant (ed.)., 160-1. — ‘The Difficulty of Arrival: Reflections on the Function of Art’, Ibid., 355-6. — ‘The Hope of Progress’, Ibid., 174-224.