“The free-will scale” by Stephen Cave

published on aeon

“It is often thought that science has shown that there is no such thing as free will. If all things are bound by the same impersonal cosmic laws, then (the story goes) our paths are no freer than those of rocks tumbling down a hill. But this is wrong. (…) Instead of using an electron microscope or a brain-scanner, we should go to the zoo.

(…)  animals need to weigh different factors, explore available options, pursue new alternatives when old strategies don’t work. (…) We are complex organisms actively pursuing our interests in a changing environment.

And we are starting to understand the cognitive abilities that underpin this behavioural freedom. Like most evolved capacities, they are a matter of degree. Take, for example, the ability to delay gratification. (…) Experimenters measure this ability by testing how long an animal can resist a small treat in return for a larger reward after a delay. Chickens, for example, can do this for six seconds. (…) A chimpanzee, on the other hand, can wait for a cool two minutes – or even up to eight minutes in some experiments. (…)


(…)  The concept lies at the heart of how we see ourselves: assumptions about the extent to which we choose our own fate inform everything from social policy and criminal justice to our personal motivations and sense of life’s meaningfulness. (…)

One prevalent idea is that freedom requires a supernatural ability to transcend the laws of nature, because otherwise we would appear to be mere puppets of cause and effect. This makes free will into something mysterious, which would set us apart from the rest of creation. As this notion contradicts everything we know about the world, it is no surprise that ever more people are concluding that free will must be an illusion.

Yet all around us, every day, we see a very natural kind of freedom – one that is completely compatible with determinism. It is the kind that living things need to pursue their goals in a world that continually presents them with multiple possibilities. (…)  

(…) There is not yet one single dominant view or definition: different scholars from different traditions tend to emphasise different aspects. But when we join the available dots we get a fairly clear sketch of what FQ might aspire to measure. (…)

First: the capacity to generate options.(…)  secondly, we also want to be able to choose between them in a meaningful way. (…) Thirdly, we want to carry out the choices we have made.


(…) And as with IQ, the usefulness of an FQ scale will depend on whether it correlates with anything else of interest.(…)

Once up and running, we can imagine the kinds of applications and consequences that FQ, as a measure of natural free will, might have. First, we usually hold people accountable for acts that they made freely:(…)  At the same time, many are dissuaded from thinking too deeply about underlying causes, because in the old paradigm this implies a determinism that undermines all accountability.

A measure such as FQ could help to bring some clarity to these discussions (…)

Second, FQ could help us to better understand the complex relationship between free will and social and political freedom.(…)

Attempting to smooth out inequalities in FQ – and to raise the FQ of everyone – should therefore be a goal of schools and of social policy. This ties in with the idea of ‘positive liberty’ — the idea that a person should be free, not just from restraints, but through having the skills and opportunities to actively pursue a fulfilling life.(…)” read full essay