Free Will

Free Will The 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.

In the meantime, why not explore more of our reading lists on the best philosophy books:

philosophy bookshop

View All Reading Lists

Essential Philosophy Books by Subject

Philosophy Break



Philosophies for Living: the Ultimate Guide to Enriching Your Personal Philosophy

Find meaning, purpose, and become a better you by exploring 7 of the world’s most influential philosophies for living — including Stoicism, Buddhism, and Existentialism. Register your interest now:

Stay notified on when the course is ready and secure a launch discount.

★★★★★ (50+ reviews for our courses)





Your Myth-Busting Guide to Nietzsche & His 5 Greatest Ideas

Introduction to Nietzsche

Learn everything you need to know about Nietzsche in just six 30-minute daily chapters. This course distills his best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

★★★★★ (12 reviews)

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Amazing

This course is amazing! You can agree or not with Nietzsche’s views, but the professionalism, the methodology, the clarity, and deepness of the investigation is really comprehensive. I totally advise philosophy fans to do this course.


  Elsa V. on 6 December 2022

★★★★★  Very informative

Very good and informative. Written with easy and comprehensible language. Enjoyed throughout - every line of the course was a delight. Keep doing what you're doing!


  Milad A. on 24 November 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

The course was interesting and challenging and exceeded my expectations. The content was excellent, stimulating, and well written. A lot of depth was shared on each topic. There is much to learn from this great thinker. Thank you for the opportunities.


  Robert J. on 19 July 2022

See All Course Reviews

Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Endlessly fascinating

Awesome, endlessly fascinating course experience. The content was very interesting and easy to understand, and made me want to dive deeper into the topics. My favorite chapter was chapter 5: 'How should we approach life?'. It was so fascinating that after reading it I was reflecting for like 2 hours!


  Alex K. on 18 December 2022

★★★★★  Very good starting point

Easy to understand, entertaining and thought-provoking and has given me some new approaches that I’ll continue to think about. The first and last chapters were my favorites. I find the question 'why is there anything at all?' is a mind blower. And the last chapter (especially about absurdity) relates to that. Thanks!


  Mario H. on 26 November 2022

★★★★★  Wonderful introduction

Wonderful, clear, concise, and very informative. This is a great introductory course, exactly what I was looking for in general and enough depth to inspire further investigations. I also really enjoy the reading lists at the end of the chapters and have taken up a few suggestions. Thanks!


  Matt J. on 16 September 2022

See All Course Reviews

Latest Breaks

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

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt
Fear of Black Consciousness, by Lewis Gordon
Aristotle On Why Leisure Defines Us More than Work
Life is Hard, by Kieran Setiya

View All Breaks


Discover exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life with just 1 email per day for 3 days

Philosophy Basics

What is philosophy? Why is it important? How can it improve your life? Discover the answers to all these questions and more with our free, 3-lesson introductory email course:

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

Philosophy Basics