Free will

From AnthroWiki

There is no generally accepted definition for the term free will or freedom of will, and whether or not freedom of will exists at all is disputed. Colloquially, free will is understood to mean something different than in legal or psychological usage. Even in philosophy, the term is not uniformly defined. In an interdisciplinary sense, freedom of will includes the subjectively perceived human ability to make a conscious decision when faced with various choices.

Rudolf Steiner's views on the freedom of will

According to Rudolf Steiner, to speak of the freedom of the will is pure nonsense. Rather, the freedom of the human being lies in the fact that he can recognise the laws of his actions and base his decisions on them. The starting point of freedom is therefore never the will, which reigns deep below the threshold of consciousness, but rather the freedom of thought, which man can attain in pure, sensuality-free thinking through moral intuition and thereby freely shape his actions. With good reason, therefore, Marquis von Posa says to King Philip II in Schiller's "Don Karlos": "Give freedom of thought!" - and not: "Give freedom of will!"

„Read in my "Philosophy of Freedom" what great importance I have attached to not asking about the freedom of will. It sits below, deep down in the unconscious, and it is nonsense to ask about the freedom of will; one can only speak of the freedom of thought. I have kept this apart in my "Philosophy of Freedom". Free thoughts must then impulse the will, and then man is free.“ (Lit.:GA 235, p. 46ff)

Freedom as freedom of thought - Rudolf Steiner's "Philosophy of Freedom"

Main article: The Philosophy of Freedom

Rudolf Steiner dealt with the question of human freedom in particular in his fundamental philosophical work "The Philosophy of Freedom" (CW 4).

The book consists of two main parts, each of which is divided into seven chapters. "The Science of Freedom", the first main part, poses the core question: "Is man in his thinking and acting a spiritually free being or is he under the constraint of a purely natural, iron necessity?" This question is more topical than ever at the beginning of the 21st century. Brain research, which has taken off in a big way in recent decades, declares - supported by a wealth of empirical evidence - not only human freedom but also the human "I" to be a mere illusion, rising like a bubble from largely unconscious brain processes that have gradually emerged in the course of natural evolution. That an action whose true reasons we do not see through cannot be free is evident. "But what about one whose reasons are known?" This raises the question of the nature and value of thinking, for without it no knowledge is possible, not even of the reasons that determine our actions.

Observation and thinking are the two starting points for all conscious human striving for knowledge. I may observe a horse for as long as I like, but the concept of the horse will never emerge of its own accord before I have formed it myself through thinking. Consciousness is the arena where concept and observation meet. Only in their union do I grasp the full reality.

Now, it is in the peculiar nature of thinking that we carry it out, but do not usually observe it, because we are completely devoted to the object we are thinking about. We have to create a state of exception, so to speak, if we want to observe our own thinking. Every human being can do this and it is the most important observation he can make, because now the consciousness is directed in continuous clarity exclusively towards his own mental activity. He grasps himself as a spiritual being and awakens to the actual "consciousness of his humanity" - this is the true meaning of the word "anthroposophy", which Rudolf Steiner used to describe the spiritual science he founded years later.

Contrary to popular opinion, thinking is not abstract and empty of content, but produces its own content, in which, however, the essence of the things I observe is revealed. Of course, we can make many mistakes and be subject to errors before we apply the right concepts to things. In the end, however, their lawfulness is expressed in them. Thus thinking is at the same time an actively working mental organ of perception. I can only recognise that a thrown stone follows an approximately parabolic path if I have formed the concept of the parabola through thinking. I can never gain it through external observation. It is present to me through intuition, through a purely spiritual experience of a purely spiritual content. The physicist Walter Heitler rightly said: "According to this, the law of nature would be an archetype, an "idea" - in the sense of the Greek word eidea - which nature follows and which man can perceive. This is then what is called the idea. Through this archetype, man is connected with nature."[1]

"The reality of freedom" is dealt with in the second main part of the "Philosophy of Freedom", in which Rudolf Steiner outlines the foundations of a future ethical individualism. Those who allow themselves to be guided in their actions only by their drives, by habits or by externally given commandments do not act freely. Only those who draw the reasons for their actions from pure thinking act freely and self-determinedly. He then acts out of moral intuition, through which he determines the lawfulness of his actions himself, adapts it to the given life situation through moral fantasy and implements it concretely through an appropriate moral technique. Nothing compels him, he acts out of insight and love for what he does. Misunderstanding is impossible between morally free people, since they draw their individual moral ideals from the world of ideas common to all.

This gives rise to the oft-quoted basic maxim of free people:

"Living in the love of action and let live in the understanding of the will of others is the fundamental maxim of free men." (Lit.:GA 4, p. 130)

The will in thinking as the basis of freedom

„Just think if you lived purely reflectively for a while in the sense of the ordinary sciences, if you did not move at all, if you completely refrained from all action, if you lived a life of imagination. But you must be clear that in this life of imagination will is active, will which, however, is then active in your inner being, which spreads its powers in the realm of imagination. When we look at the thinking man in this way, how he continually radiates will into his thoughts, then one thing must actually strike us in comparison with real life. The thoughts that we grasp when we go through them all - we will always find that they are connected with something in our surroundings, something among our experiences. Between birth and death we have, as it were, no other thoughts than those which life brings us. If our experience is rich, we also have a rich thought-content; if our experience is poor, we have a poor thought-content. The thought-content is, so to speak, our inner destiny. But within this thought-experience, one thing is entirely our own: The way we connect and disconnect thoughts, the way we inwardly process thoughts, the way we judge, the way we draw conclusions, the way we orient ourselves in thought-life in general, that is ours, is peculiar to us. The will in our thought life is our own.

When we look at this thought-life, we must say to ourselves, and you will see that this is the case with a careful self-examination: the thoughts come to us from outside according to their content, the processing of the thoughts comes from us. - Basically, therefore, we are entirely dependent on what we can experience in our world of thoughts through the birth into which we are fated, through the experiences that can come to us. But into that which comes to us from the outer world we carry our own, precisely through the will which radiates from the depths of the soul. For the fulfilment of what self-knowledge demands of us human beings, it is of great importance that we distinguish between the thought content that comes to us from the environment on the one hand, and the power of the will that radiates from within us into the world of thought on the other.

How does one actually become more and more spiritual inwardly? One does not become more spiritual by absorbing as many thoughts as possible from the environment, for these thoughts only, I would say, reproduce the outer world, which is a sensual-physical world, in images. By running after the sensations of life as much as possible, one does not become more spiritual. One becomes more spiritual through inner willful work within the thoughts. That is why meditation consists in not indulging in a random play of thoughts, but in placing a few easily comprehensible, easily verifiable thoughts in the centre of one's consciousness, but in placing these thoughts in the centre of one's consciousness with a strong will. And the stronger, the more intense this inner ray of will becomes in the element where the thoughts are, the more spiritual we become. If we take up thoughts from the outer physical-sensuous world - and we can only take up such thoughts between birth and death - then, as you can easily see, we become unfree, for we are given over to the connections of the outer world; we must then think as the outer world dictates, insofar as we only consider the thought content; only in the inner processing do we become free.

Now there is a possibility of becoming completely free, of becoming free in one's inner life, if one excludes, as far as possible, the content of thought, in so far as it comes from outside, more and more and more, and puts the will element, which radiates through our thoughts in judging, in drawing conclusions, into special activity. This, however, puts our thinking into that state which I have called pure thinking in my "Philosophy of Freedom". We think, but only will lives in thinking. I emphasised this particularly sharply in the new edition of the "Philosophy of Freedom" in 1918. That which lives in us lives in the sphere of thinking. But when it has become pure thinking, it can just as well be spoken of as pure will. So that we rise from thinking to the will, when we become inwardly free, that we make our thinking so mature, so to speak, that it is completely permeated by the will, no longer absorbs from without, but lives in the will. But it is precisely by strengthening the will more and more in thought that we prepare ourselves for what I have called in the "Philosophy of Freedom" the moral fantasy, but which rises to the moral intuitions which then radiate through, enforce our will that has become thought or thought that has become will. In this way we lift ourselves out of physical-sensual necessity, radiate through ourselves with what is proper to us and prepare ourselves for moral intuition. And it is on such moral intuitions that all that can at first fulfil man from the spiritual world is based. It lives, then, on that which is freedom, when in our very thinking we let the will become more and more powerful.“ (Lit.:GA 202, p. 200ff)

The problem of the so-called motor nerves

A fundamental problem in the debate about human freedom of will is rooted in the distinction between the so-called sensory and motor nerves, which Rudolf Steiner considers neither anatomically nor functionally justified. In truth, there would only be sensory nerves. The basic dogma of neuroscience that the will and human movements are centrally controlled by the brain is derived from the false assumption of motor nerves, according to Steiner. Steiner strongly disagrees with this. Rather, the movements of the will arise through the direct intervention of the astral body from outside. The nerves would only serve to perceive the movements caused by them and, in this sense only, to control them.

„We must do away with a scientific prejudice which today completely dominates a certain scientific field, and from there has also spread into the popular consciousness. This scientific view - I would like to mention this because what we are now dealing with can perhaps be understood best from here - that which is believed today from the materialistic scientific view is that man has two kinds of nerves, the so-called sensitive and the motor nerves. The sensitive nerves go from our sense organs, so it is believed, or from the surface of the skin to the nerve centre, and like telegraph wires they bring there that which is sensually perceived. And then again from the nerve centre go the so-called motor nerves, the nerves of will. In a way, through a demonic entity, which of course today's science does not want to admit, and which sits in the central nervous system, that which is wired from the senses to the central system through the telegraph wire nerves is transformed in the will through the motor nerves, through the will nerves. Very beautiful theories have been devised which are even extraordinarily witty, especially that which is taken from the terrible disease of Tabes[2] to explain this theory of the two kinds of nerves. But nevertheless this theory of the two kinds of nerves is nothing but an outgrowth of ignorance about the supersensible man. There is - I cannot go into this here, because it would go too far, but it is just the Tabes disease that proves it, if you look at it properly - there is no difference between sensitive and motor nerves. The so-called motor nerves are only there to convey the external perceptions, just as the so-called sensitive nerves convey the internal perceptions, when we walk or when we move our arm. The motor nerves are also sensitive nerves; they are there to feel our movements themselves. And the fact that one believes that the motor nerves are the carriers of the will only comes from the fact that one is ignorant of the actual carrier of the will. We only learn to recognise it when we really practise the self-cultivation of the will that I have spoken of. When it becomes an activity to educate oneself. When in this education one becomes independent of what the body itself does with one. Then one learns to recognise that it is not the motor nerves which produce the will, they only perceive the movements through the will, but that it is a third member of the human being, a supersensible member, that which one could call the actual soul being. In my writings I have called it the astral body, even though I do not yet like the expression. One learns to know this supersensible member of the human being, again through a direct vision, which one acquires through this self-cultivation of the will, one learns to know this soul body, if I may call it so, as that which spiritually-soulfully underlies all movements of the will, all movements of the body. Nerves are only there to mediate the perception of movement.“ (Lit.:GA 330, p. 363ff)

If I decide to go for a walk, for example, I can very well ask the question whether I have come to this decision out of a free conscious decision, or whether I am only going for a walk as a habit. The actual motor movements by which I then take one step in front of the other have nothing whatsoever to do with the previous decision, however it may have been made, free or unfree. What is decisive here is not how the movement is executed, but how the decision to execute it comes about. It is not a question of how and when I allow a certain sequence of actions to take place, but why. It has been known for a long time that consciousness does not promote movement sequences but disturbs them. Well-practised, fully "automated" movements, which can also be very complex, run most smoothly and safely. Conscious "control" would fail completely here.

Processes of degradation in the nervous system as the basis of freedom

Rudolf Steiner has repeatedly shown that we only become aware of thoughts bound to the sensual by the fact that thought is reflected in the nervous system. The sensual thoughts are therefore pure mirror images without independent reality and consequently also without causal efficacy. Because, as mere mirror images, they are not subject to the necessity of nature, they form the precondition of freedom. On the other hand, there are the thoughts of action that are conceived from the moral imagination in pure thinking that is free of sensuality. They have no imaginative character, but are of a volitional nature. They are not reflected in the nervous system, therefore do not cause any processes of degradation and do not fade into mirror images, but rather act as real living constructive forces. By acting on the processes of degradation, free action comes into being.

„Consider that in public lectures and also here again in the most varied contexts I have emphasised again and again with a certain intensity that we can only understand correctly what we call ideas if we relate them to our bodily organism in such a way that we do not see something growing and thriving as the basis of the ideas in the body, but just the opposite, something dying, something partially dying in the body. I expressed this in a public lecture in such a way that I said: Man actually always dies into his nervous system. - The nervous process is such that it must confine itself to the nervous system. For if it were to extend over the whole organism, if the same thing were to happen in the whole organism that happens in the nerves, this would mean the death of man at every moment. One can say: ideas arise where the organism breaks down itself, we are continually dying into our nervous system. - This makes it necessary for spiritual science to pursue not only those processes which today's natural science regards as the only authoritative ones: the ascending processes. These ascending processes, they are growth processes, they still culminate in the unconscious. Only when the organism begins with the descending processes does that activity of the soul occur in the organism which can be called the activity of imagination, even the activity of sensual perception. This process of decomposition, this process of dying, must be present if there is to be any imagining at all.

Now I have shown that the free action of man is based precisely on the fact that man is able to seek the impulses for his action out of pure thoughts. These pure thoughts will have the greatest influence on the processes of decomposition in the human organism. What actually happens when a human being carries out a free action? Let us make it clear to ourselves what happens in the ordinary physical human being when he acts out of moral fantasy - you now know what I mean by this - out of moral fantasy, that is, out of a thinking that is not dominated by sensual impulses, sensual urges and affects, what actually happens to the human being? Then what happens is that he gives himself over to pure thoughts; these form his impulses. They cannot impulse him through themselves; he must impulse himself, for they are mere mirror images, as we have emphasised. They belong to the Maja. Mirror images cannot compel, man must compel himself under the influence of pure ideas.

What is the effect of pure ideas? They have the strongest effect on the process of decomposition in the human organism. On the one hand, the process of decomposition comes out of the organism, and on the other hand, the pure thought of action comes out of the spiritual life to counteract this process of decomposition. By this I mean the thought which underlies the deed. Through the union of the two, through the interaction of the process of decomposition and the thought of action, free action comes into being.

I said that the process of degradation is not brought about by pure thinking; it is there anyway, so it is actually always there. If man does not oppose this process of decomposition, especially the most important processes of decomposition in him, out of pure thinking, then it remains a process of decomposition, then the process of decomposition is not transformed into a process of building up, then a dying part remains in man. If you think this through, you will see that there is the possibility that man, precisely by refraining from free actions, does not abolish a process of death within himself. Therein lies one of the most subtle thoughts that man needs to assimilate. Whoever understands this thought can no longer doubt the existence of human freedom in life. For an action that happens out of freedom does not happen through something that is caused in the organism, but where the causes stop, namely out of a process of decomposition. Something must underlie the organism where the causes cease, then only pure imagination can intervene as a motive for action. But such processes of decomposition are always there, they only remain to a certain extent unused if the human being does not carry out free actions.

But what lies at the root of this also testifies to what it must look like with an age that does not want to get involved in understanding the idea of freedom to the fullest extent. The second half of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century up to our own time, this epoch has virtually made it its task to cloud the idea of freedom more and more for knowledge in all areas of life, to eliminate it in reality for practical life. Freedom was not to be understood, freedom was not wanted. Philosophers have endeavoured to prove that everything arises with a certain necessity from human nature. Certainly, human nature is based on necessity, but this necessity ceases when processes of degradation begin, in which the connection of causes comes to an end. If freedom has intervened where necessity ceases in the organism, then one cannot say that the actions of men arise from inner necessity; they only arise from it when this necessity ceases. The whole mistake consisted in the fact that one did not get involved in understanding not only the constructive processes in the human organism, but also the decompositional processes.“ (Lit.:GA 179, p. 122ff)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. Walter Heitler: Naturwissenschaft ist Geisteswissenschaft, Die Waage, Zurich 1972, p. 14