Free Will Again


Isn’t free will an endlessly fascinating topic? When is an action voluntary? On the face of it, if I want to do something and I do it, the related action is clearly voluntary. But, on analysis, we find that there is a whole spectrum of relationships between actions and the so-called volition that triggers them.

In the book ‘The Questions of Life’ (Ref. 1), Fernando Savater suggests the following scenario. I am on a train and, with my mind elsewhere (contemplating the thorny problem of free will versus determinism perhaps), I am absentmindedly playing with my rail ticket. Having been bending and re-bending it, twisting it here and there, I eventually screw it up and throw it out of the open window. Eventually, the ticket inspector arrives and asks for my ticket. Upon emerging from my intellectual reverie, I realize what has happened and I’m forced to tell the inspector that I threw it away unintentionally.

There then ensues a discussion between the two. In essence, this boils down to the question as to whether it can be said that I actually threw it, if I did not realize that I was doing it. I.e., can it be said that I am actually responsible for an action if there is no intent behind it? Clearly, what I did does not seem to be the same thing as merely dropping the ticket without noticing. But, equally clearly, it is not the same thing as deliberately throwing it away, knowing full well that I would then have to pay a fine. Obviously I did not actually want to do this. Savater has his ticket inspector asking how I know that it was me who threw away the ticket, if I didn’t mean to, since the verb ‘to throw’ entails intention.

One can imagine a range of actions, from wholehearted intent to unconscious accident. For example: taking a knife and stabbing someone; driving a car, whilst taking part in an animated discussion; carrying a tray, loaded with crockery, and having an item fall to the floor and break; carrying a ladder through a crowded environment, and knocking something over without even noticing. And what about actions such as closing one’s eyes, if dust is about to blow into them? We would certainly say that such an action is involuntary.

Perhaps ‘voluntary’ relates to the decision-making process rather than the action itself. I consider the options in relation to a desired objective and eventually arrived at a decision. The decision and the action are two different things (and this leads us to the findings of

Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner, which you can read about elsewhere on this site – a five-part series beginning at But decisions often relate to very complex actions or a whole series of activities. For example, if I decide to travel to X by car, I must first put on my coat and find my car keys, go to the garage, open it and get in the car etc. There are many activities involved before I finally get to X. The initial thinking and decision-making process in which I was involved probably only relate to all of these actions in very general terms. All I was bothered about was reaching X. All of the intermediate actions were largely mechanical. So which actions can we say were deterministic and which entailed free will?

Savater also quotes Aristotle’s example from his ‘Nichomachean Ethics’. This involves a ship that is caught in a tropical storm and the captain decides that the only way he can save the ship is by throwing the cargo overboard. By doing so, he will forfeit payment for transporting the goods but if he does not do so, the ship might be lost. Clearly the captain does not want to do this but it would seem that he chooses to do. As Savater points out, it would seem that we sometimes willingly act against our will!

Ref. 1 The Questions of Life: An Invitation to Philosophy, Fernando Savater, Translated by Carolina Ospina Arrowsmith, Polity Press, 2002, ISBN 0-7456-2628-9.

4 thoughts on “Free Will Again

  1. Hi Dennis,

    Freewill is indeed an endlessly fascinating topic, although my attraction to it is probably involuntary. 🙂 The train ticket example is interesting, but I find stories of homicidal sleepwalking even more fascinating. Check out the case of Kenneth Parks, for example, who drove more than 23km to the home of his in-laws while asleep. He attacked his father-in-law and stabbed his mother-in-law to death, all while fully asleep. He was tried for murder and not convicted, and his acquittal was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1992.


  2. Interesting take on the Parks case, thanks. There are a lot of other examples of homicidal sleepwalking, however, so I’m a little skeptical of the author’s skepticism. 🙂

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