Original Research - Special Collection: Challenging Building Blocks

Building blocks of ‘free will’: In conversation with Dick Swaab

Chris Jones, Dawie J. van den Heever
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 1 | a6056 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i1.6056 | © 2020 Chris Jones, Dawie J. van den Heever | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 24 April 2020 | Published: 20 November 2020

About the author(s)

Chris Jones, Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Dawie J. van den Heever, Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa


The issue of free will is a complex one that has occupied the minds of many theologians and philosophers through the ages. The two main aspects of free will are the freedom to do otherwise and the power of self-determination. This means that an agent must be able to choose from alternative possibilities and that he or she must be the author or source of that choice. Defined as such, it is clear that the issue of free will is undeniably closely linked with the concept of moral responsibility. However, if we live in a deterministic world, where everything is governed by the laws of nature, including our thoughts and behaviour, does this leave room for free will and moral responsibility? As Dutch neurobiologist and author Dick Swaab argues, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. In this article, we will look at Swaab’s case against free will. We will also see what modern neuroscience has to say about this hot topic and whether it supports or discredits Swaab’s views. And finally, we will touch on what this all means for moral responsibility.

Contribution: This article is part of a special collection that reflects on the evolutionary building blocks of our past, present and future. It is based on historical thought and contemporary research. It fits well with the intersectional and inter-disciplinary nature of this collection and journal.


Free will; Dick Swaab; Neurobiology; Determinism; Compatibilism; Libertarianism; Unconscious will; Free will and brain illness; Readiness potential; Magnetic resonance imaging


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Crossref Citations

1. The significance of freedom in God’s plan
Andreas May
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies  vol: 79  issue: 2  year: 2023  
doi: 10.4102/hts.v79i2.8090