Free Will

Free WillThe Best 7 Books to Read

Are we free to do as we please? Or is the freedom of choice we feel in our day-to-day lives a mere illusion? Is every action and circumstance predetermined? Or can our wills transcend the past to actively shape the future? Does determinism, the theory that everything is determined by pre-existing causes, render our conceptions of free will and individual responsibility redundant? Or are such conceptions compatible with a deterministic world?

These types of questions form the basis of the philosophical quandary of free will. And the stakes are high: if it turns out we have no freedom in how we act, could we really blame people for bad behavior? Could we hold criminals to account, if they had no option but to act criminally? Would systems of ethics and morality have any justification at all?

While there's increasing clamor from voices in neuroscience that free will is an illusion, rescuing our conception of free will from the onslaught of a deterministic universe has been a favored pastime of many a thinker throughout the history of philosophy.

Do We Have Free Will?


Get philosophy's best answers delivered direct to your inbox with our celebrated introduction to philosophy course.

Explore Course Now

This reading list is designed to give you a well-rounded view of all the contemporary problems, theories, and debates about free will. After consuming it, you’ll be much clearer about what free will refers to, as well as the extent to which we can be said to exercise it.

1. Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, by Thomas Pink

Published in 2004, British philosopher Thomas Pink’s Free Will: A Very Short Introduction is a fantastic starting place for anyone curious about the free will debate in philosophy. Pink lays out the core arguments in highly readable style, with one important note being that Pink himself is sympathetic to a position not held by the majority of philosophers, which may unsettle some readers. Coming in at an accessible 132 pages, this is a nice entry point to free will, outlining the history and major discussion points of the debate.

Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, by Thomas Pink

2. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, by Robert Kane

If you’re after a one-stop shop for all things free will, look no further than The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by American philosopher Robert Kane and published in 2011. Consisting of twenty-eight essays by prominent international scholars discussing free will’s relation to subjects across physics, neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and empirical philosophy, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will features the best short-form writings on free will from the past forty years, paying special attention to the latest research from the twenty-first century. At 664 pages, this collection is substantial — but you won’t need another.

The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, by Robert Kane

3. A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, by Robert Kane

If you’d prefer a more in-depth, guided tour through free will's nefarious subject matter, Kane’s 2005 A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will is a brilliant choice. Accessible to those with no background in the subject, Kane’s book offers a concise introduction to the history of the problem of free will, before diving into contemporary debates between compatibilists, incompatibilists, and libertarian theories. The text is packed full of compelling examples and challenging thought experiments, and serves as an ideal introduction for anyone interested in free will.

A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, by Robert Kane

4. Four Views on Free Will, by Fischer, Kane, Pereboom & Vargas

In the fascinating 2007 Four Views on Free Will, four well-known philosophers — John Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas — each outline their particular views on free will, before directly responding to each other in a lively and engaging exchange. Their views cover most of the major tenable positions on free will, so in reading Four Views on Free Will and examining each view in turn, you’ll come away with a better idea as to where you stand yourself.

Four Views on Free Will, by Fischer, Kane, Pereboom & Vargas

5. Freedom and Belief, by Galen Strawson

It’s time to eviscerate free will with a couple of no-nonsense, hardline reads. First up, Galen Strawson’s 1986 Freedom and Belief forcefully puts the philosophical case for there being no such thing as free will or true moral responsibility. Strawon comprehensively examines the logic behind the freedom we feel in making choices, controversially concluding that whether determinism is true or not, ultimate freedom is logically impossible. An honest and challenging work, Strawson’s Freedom and Belief is a stimulating read for any student of free will.

Freedom and Belief, by Galen Strawson

6. Free Will, by Sam Harris

Next up in the free will knockout is neuroscientist Sam Harris’s 2012 Free Will. Though not a staunch philosophical classic, in that Harris focuses largely on studies from neuroscience and commonsense views of free will (as opposed to digging into the philosophical literature around what freedom entails), Free Will is hugely persuasive, entertaining, and can be read quite easily in one sitting. For anyone looking for a quick and dirty route into the free will debate, this is most certainly it — if you don’t come away near-convinced that free will is an illusion, you’ll be full of bluster as to why it’s not.

Free Will, by Sam Harris

7. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, by Daniel Dennett

Can American philosopher Daniel Dennett rescue our conception of free will from the arguments of hardline deniers like Strawson and Harris? That’s certainly what he sets out to do in his 1984 Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. A witty and engaging read, in this landmark book Dennett makes a powerful case for compatibilism, arguing that the varieties of free will that underwrite moral and artistic responsibility are not threatened by determinism nor the findings of neuroscience — but rather contextualized by them. Disentangling errors in common thinking around free will, Dennett arms his readers with powerful ways to conceptualize the nuances of the debate. This is an essential read for anyone interested in free will, and if you enjoy it, it’s worth checking out Dennett’s 2004 work, the fantastically lucid Freedom Evolves, in which he attempts to demonstrate how human freedom is baked into our biology.

Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, by Daniel Dennett

Further reading

Are there any other books you think should be on this list? Let us know via email or drop us a message on Twitter or Instagram.

philosophy bookshop

View All Reading Lists

Essential Philosophy Books by Subject

Philosophy Break





6-Day Introduction to Nietzsche Course

★★★★★ (9 reviews)

Life's Big Questions


$39.00 USD  $34.00 USD

Learn everything you need to know about Friedrich Nietzsche in just six days. This introductory course distills Nietzsche’s best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Great

Great course experience, content was clear and simple to read. Loved the way the course was delivered and the writing was informative, interesting, and easy to understand. My favorite chapter was the final one on the will to power, I thought it brought everything together very nicely. Thanks for creating such an accessible course on Nietzsche!


  Julien S. on 22 March 2022

★★★★★  Please make more

It was really good. Honestly, there are things I thought I knew but turns out I had completely misunderstood from the books and the course helped me to figure out what I was missing. The content was very easy to understand and didactic, covering everything I was hoping for, and the difficulty of material was very well balanced. Please make more!


  Joaquim N. on 16 March 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

Excellent. Well written and an enjoyable read on my iPhone. I found the content very interesting. It's been over 30 years since I took a course on Nietzsche - great to revisit the material at a later life stage and new perspective. My favorite chapter was the one on perspectivism.


  David U. on 11 March 2022

See All Course Reviews


5-Day Introduction to Philosophy Course

★★★★★ (31 reviews)

Life's Big Questions


$34.00 USD  $29.00 USD

Why does anything exist? Do we have free will? How should we approach life? We’ve distilled the great philosophers’ best answers to life’s big questions. Start learning today.

Learn More about Course
Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Fantastic

Fantastic! Loved the delivery of one chapter per day and the content was fascinating. I didn't know much about philosophy going into this, and some things like consciousness I didn't realize had such a philosophical component. Really interesting, and I'd highly recommend the course.


  Bernie L. on 11 March 2022

★★★★★  Really good

I had a really good course experience, thanks. Good portion size of information each day, really easy to read, and really informative and interesting - cuts through a lot of waffle. Would recommend for anyone interested in philosophy.


  Phoebe T. on 9 February 2022

★★★★★  Truly enjoyed

Excellent course experience! Good pace and length of reads, combined with very well written content. Complexities are shared in a digestible manner. The reading lists are a great addition. I truly enjoyed every chapter. Thanks!


  Tomas R. on 27 January 2022

See All Course Reviews

Latest Breaks

Each break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your philosophical curiosity.

Nietzsche Quotes
A Defense of the Unmodified Body Clare Chambers
God is dead Nietzsche
The Good Life Method Meghan Sullivan Paul Blaschko

View All Breaks


Learn exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life

Expand your mind and learn the basics of philosophy with our free, popular, 3-part email course, which delivers our quickfire introductory materials direct to your inbox.

Philosophy Basics

1 email per day for 3 days. Join 50,000+ philosophers. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

Philosophy Basics