by Claire Howlett

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines free will as the “capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” Most judgments follow from some degree of conscious deliberation and when you make a decision, you feel as if you acted freely. For centuries, however, philosophers have debated whether our judgments are determined by our deliberation alone or by external physical, psychological, theological, or biological factors. Some believe in the autonomy of the individual to make judgments, while others, called determinists, believe that our actions are dictated by some combination of factors beyond our control. Within this category, philosophers disagree over whether determinism negates the possibility of free will or whether the two ideas are compatible.

In the Middle Ages, free will was a theological concept. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, does He ultimately have control over our actions? Or do humans have autonomy over our judgments, meaning that we must accept responsibility for our wrongdoings? In many ways, science has replaced God in today’s discussion of free will. Psychologists and neuroscientists have entered the debate, using research on biochemical processes in the brain to explain how we make choices. In today’s secular world, people are questioning the role of outside factors like genetics and environment in our decision-making process. Biologically, scientists argue that natural sensations like sexual desire and competitiveness have the power to alter our judgment. Psychologists often discuss the role of factors such as upbringing, social constructs, and media exposure in determining our actions.

The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca, from Dante's Inferno, Canto V by William Blake  (c. 1826)

The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca, from Dante’s Inferno, Canto V by William Blake (c. 1826)

Dante’s Inferno is an exploration of human judgment and its consequences. As Dante journeys through hell, he encounters sinners who discuss the bad decisions that led to their damnation. In Canto Five of Inferno, Dante visits the circle of hell reserved for sinners who “subject their reason to their lust” (38). There he meets his historical contemporary Francesca Rimini, a member of the da Polenta family that ruled Ravenna during the 13th century. Around 1275, Francesca was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, the crippled son of Malatesta da Verucchio, to seal a peace agreement between their families. Ten years after their marriage, Gianciotto discovered Francesca and his brother Paolo in an act of adultery and murdered them both, damaging relations between the two families (Durling 98).

Francesca’s language throughout Canto Five minimizes her agency in committing adultery. In particular, she references love and desire as biological forces that impaired her judgment. She speaks of desire as an outside force that “overpowered” her and her lover (132). Her three terzinas in lines 100-107 personify love, in each case making it the agent of her sin. She uses violent diction to describe its influence on her actions, telling Dante that love “seized” and “injured” the couple and “led [them] on to one death” (101-106). In doing so, she not only underplays her responsibility but implies that she was a resistant victim of love’s pull. Later in her speech, she gives agency to the book that motivated her to commit adultery, detracting from her role in the affair. She laments that “the reading” turned her and Paolo’s faces pale and that “one point alone” in the story overpowered them (130, 132). By assigning agency to love and to her book, Francesca emphasizes that she was driven to sin by forces beyond her control and that it was only natural for her to succumb to sexual temptation. She hints at the physical motivation to sin several times in her monologue, describing her yearning to experience “so great a lover” and referencing Paolo’s “beauty” and “lovely” appearance (101, 104, 134). Francesca’s insistence on blaming forces like love, desire, and even her book for her affair reveal her self-deception. She refuses to admit that she acted sinfully of her own accord, instead pinning responsibility on her love for Paolo to preserve a facade of innocence.


Paolo and Francesca da Rimini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1867)

The environmental factors that affected Francesca’s judgment were subtle, but arguably had a more significant influence on her fate than physical attraction. When they first engaged in sin, the lovers were reading a scene from Book of Lancelot of the Lake in which Lancelot and Guinevere exchange their first kiss. This book, part of a prose compilation that was popular in Francesca’s time, described the illicit affair between Lancelot and Guinevere and the destruction it ultimately brought to the Arthurian kingdom (Durling 98). Francesca was seduced not only by Paolo, but by the tale of these ancient lovers. After reading that Guinevere attained sexual fulfillment and fame by breaking a taboo, Francesca sought to live out a dramatic love story of her own. The speech patterns of Francesca’s narration reveal her desire to become a romantic heroine. She tells her story with a dramatic flair, alluding to love poetry that was popular during her time with phrases like “swiftly kindled in the noble heart,” which was a reference to a poem by her contemporary Guido Guinizelli (Durling 97). She references another literary model when she says “but if you have so much desire,” imitating the opening of Aeneas’s famous story of the fall of Troy (Durling 98). Through her speech, Francesca shows that she considers her story comparable to the famous romantic tragedies of her time. Furthermore, Paolo is present in the second circle of hell but remains silent throughout Canto Five. Despite their presumably equal complicity in the affair, Francesca is the story’s clear protagonist and she narrates from beginning to end to ensure that she is portrayed in a positive light. Ultimately, Francesca achieves her desired fame—her story was recounted in the Inferno and told again in greater detail in Baccaccio’s Esposizio ni roughly 100 years after her death, securing her place among the romantic heroines of her age.


Paolo and Francesca da Rimini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855)

Francesca’s sexual and social vulnerability made her more susceptible to the seductive power of popular media. Her bleak circumstances likely heightened her desire to engage in adultery. She had been forced into a loveless marriage to a physically unattractive and notoriously violent man and was responsible for maintaining a precarious peace agreement through her union. As an upper-class woman in the Middle Ages, she had little control over her life—her every action was dictated by her father before her marriage and by her husband afterward. Her reality probably made Guinevere’s sexual fulfillment and fame seem even more appealing. For Francesca, adultery could be viewed as a way to assert control over one aspect of her life and escape an existence full of repression.

Dante’s portrayal of Francesca reveals his sympathy for her plight. Francesca introduces herself with a polite salutation intended to endear her to Dante, asking him to pity the lovers in hell and listen to “whatever it pleases [him] to hear” (94). She uses the same gracious tone throughout her tale to draw readers into her story and elicit their compassion. Dante echoes Francesca’s pattern of giving agency to forces other than human actors when he asks “how… Love” forced her adultery (119). In doing so, he acknowledges that her circumstances clouded her judgment and limited her ability to exercise free will. After hearing her story, Dante faints “for pity,” again demonstrating his sympathy for Francesca (141). Although he acknowledges that Francesca was largely a victim of her circumstances, he maintains that she deserves her fate. His sympathetic portrayal implies that her judgment was heavily influenced by her environment, but he nevertheless finds her morally responsible for her actions.

The brain as a machine (photo credit:

The brain as a machine (photo credit:

Some conclude from determinism that rational deliberation is obsolete, since our brains are governed by genetics and the environment; others conclude that we lack moral responsibility, since we do not freely choose our actions. Paul Bloom, a psychology and cognitive science professor at Yale University, disputes both of these claims in The Chronicle Review, arguing that the capacity to make conscious decisions is compatible with determinism. We are capable of choosing between alternatives, but at the same time, genetic and environmental factors influence our decision-making process. To make this argument, Bloom draws a comparison between our brains and complex machines, claiming that “physical and determined processes can influence our actions and our thoughts, in the same way that the physical and determined workings of a computer can influence its output.” This analogy resonates with me because it reconciles determinism with moral responsibility. I agree that the brain synthesizes information in a way that reflects factors beyond our control. But too often, determinists commit a fallacy by reducing all of our judgments to a series of chemical reactions. Reductionism discounts the complexity of the brain and the mystery of consciousness, for scientists still can’t explain many brain processes. Still, comparing the brain to a complex machine demonstrates that given an input of biological and environmental factors, the brain “computes” a choice between alternatives. The input is completely outside our control, but the output is synthesized entirely by our brain; therefore, though our judgments are largely determined by outside factors, we must claim full responsibility for what we choose. To extend Bloom’s analogy, if you sell a machine-made product but the machine malfunctions, you’re still responsible for the defective product. Our brain may be a machine, but it belongs to us and we should be held responsible for the judgments it computes. We may be “unable to escape causation,” as Bloom puts it, but we are still rational beings and should accept responsibility for our judgments.

The same conclusion can be extended to Francesca’s situation in Canto Five. Each of Francesca’s sinful judgments was the result of deliberation, though her thought processes were determined by biology, her oppressed circumstances, and her exposure to popular media. Like Dante, I believe that Francesca deserved her fate. She knew that adultery was a sin, but her brain, tempted by physical attraction and the prospect of fame, computed that damnation was a worthy price. Dante recognizes that Francesca had limited control over her choices, acknowledging that love and her circumstances clouded her judgment, yet he makes it clear that she belongs in hell. Bloom’s argument that moral responsibility exists in conjunction with determinism means that Francesca can be held accountable for her sinful choices.

In an interview with PBS, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes his views on determinism and its implications for free will. Dawkins argues that regardless of whether or not you believe in determinism, you experience the “sensation of free will.” When you make a judgment, it feels as if your choice is dictated by your own reasoning, not some set of external factors. The debate on free will is a debate on whether that feeling of autonomy is genuine or perceived and according to Dawkins, this discussion is pointless. In the interview, Dawkins says that “there is no difference between the way it feels to have free will if there is this kind of fundamentally illusory free will that I’ve been talking about, or if in some other sense (which actually I can’t quite imagine what it would be like) we really did have free will. It wouldn’t feel any different.”

From the evidence presented in this essay, I conclude that we don’t have free will—but that’s not important. Our perception of free will is the only thing that matters. At every turn, we make conscious, rational decisions based on the genetic and environmental factors that control our brains. Although every decision we make is determined by our circumstances, our judgments are made through rational thinking and with the sensation of free will. Our decisions belong to us, we have a perception of free will, and despite our lack of control, this feeling makes us morally responsible for our choices.