Free Will

Like most of us, I was taught while growing up that humans have free will.  That important lesson was not delivered by my school teachers, however, nor even by my parent or relatives, but by my nanny.

My nanny was an elderly lady with no formal education beyond high school.  She was diligent, caring, and tolerant, but she was an uncritical thinker.  That is, she simply accepted what had been taught her, without much mulling it over, and passed it on to me.

One of the things that had been taught her, and which she uncritically passed on to me, was the notion of hell.  My mother, an agnostic at the time, was no more concerned with teaching me about hell than she was concerned with teaching me about what some far distant Amazonian tribe wore to weddings.  I don't even know if she believed in hell.  But my nanny had been taught hell, had never questioned it, and thought it important.

I was about five or six when my nanny taught me about hell.  And it was in teaching me about hell that she introduced me to the concept of free will.  I vaguely recall she actually used the term "free will", but that could be my memory adding its frills and laces to the facts.  At any rate, I believe it was as my nanny was teaching me about god, afterlife, hell, and salvation, that I formed my first notion of free will  -- although I can't be sure whether I learned the term then or later.

Naturally, all that talk of hell caused tears.  When my mother got home from work, she had to comfort me.  Which she did -- as was her custom -- in an intellectual way.  There were no hugs and kisses and reassurances that I was a good boy and would go to heaven. I probably would not have been satisfied by those things anyway, for I was an intellectual kid. 

Instead, mom verbally asserted -- like the good agnostic that she was -- that the concept of hell was highly questionable, and that I was too young to make a decision about whether there was such a thing.  As I recall, her words did not entirely calm me down and comfort me, but they did, I think, steer me in the direction of critical thought -- for one of the most important lessons to learn about critical thinking is the wisdom of suspending judgment.

Over the years, my sporadic reflections on free will have led me to greater and greater uncertainty about the concept. Today, I only think there is an exceedingly small chance of it.  That is, if you define free will as whether, given two absolutely identical situations, your choice of action could vary from one of those situations to the other, then I think the odds are overwhelming that free will does not exist.  And if it does exist, then -- for reasons too complex to discuss here -- I suspect it might be negative in nature.  That is, you cannot freely will to do something, but in some limited way, you might be able to freely will not to do something.

In other words, what we call "free will" might not amount to much more than the inhibitory functions of consciousness.  I guess it would depend on whether or not those functions are caused.  If they are caused, then the will is not free.  If they somehow cause themselves (and how could that be!), then the will has a certain measure of freedom.

What do you think about the notion of free will?  Does it have any merit?  Why or why not?


  1. I think that there is free will, but it is rarely exercised because we are mentally lazy. It requires thinking about decisions, when usually we just go with our tendencies, familiarity, etc.

    However, I think that free will does show up occasionally even without deep thought. I see it show up most often in that fashion when I go out to eat and either nothing really stands out as what I want to eat, or two or more things are so attractive that it is basically a coin flip between which meal I choose.

  2. There's an interesting study that appears to show that free will is an illusion. Personally, I don't see a lot of evidence there, merely supposition. For a start, I think you'd have to demonstrate that what we think of as "us" doesn't include subconscious brain function, which isn't obvious.

    And maybe I'm stretching here, but there's also a possible similarity to Chaos Theory, which deals with systems that are deterministic, but at the same time unpredictable, because the slightest variation in the starting conditions can have a huge effect on subsequent events.

    Anyway, an article about that study:

  3. Well, on this one, Paul, I am one of those who believe it is an illusion. I think Schopenhauer put it succinctly: "A man can do as he wills, but not will as he wills." Something like that. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of just what is and isn't implied by that, however.

  4. When I was younger I used to think 'free will' was a given. Now I'm not so sure. I think we're all victims of circumstance and prisoners of our brain chemistry.

  5. If we think we have free will, doesn't that cause us to make conscious decisions as though we have free will? And if we are making conscious decisions, doesn't that mean we do have free will?

  6. Hi, very interesting post. Sam Harris has a new book "Free Will". I was just thinking about ordering it.

  7. Yes, as Sylvia mentioned, the Sam Harris book on Free Will is really good. My mother thought I was kind of nuts when I said that I didn't think 'free will' really exists. She read the Sam Harris book, and is now questioning what it really means to say our will is 'free' (of prior causes).

    Paul, when you mention the idea that maybe there is some freedom in our ability to exert inhibitory control over our actions, I'm thinking about Daniel Dennett's writings on the issue. He too raises the issue of inhibitory control. However, you mentioned the key question, "Is inhibitory control any freer from prior causes than any other aspect of our behavior?" I don't see why one would suppose that it is (freer). Dennett plays a kind of trick in his argument, I think. He says, essentially, that we have the ability to 'avoid' or inhibit a particular behavior. Then he says that it follows that specific outcomes of our behavior are 'evitable' (since that just means avoidable). Therefore, my action is not 'inevitable' but is 'evitable'. He shifts the nature of the argument - and is no longer speaking of whether or not prior causes bind the action that I choose (the question that most people are interested in when they ask about free will). Essentially, I think that he explains free will by changing the definition of it, and answers a question that no one was all that interested in to begin with. (I apologize if my comment is on the esoteric side - but it's an issue that's fascinated me for a lot of years).

  8. This is one of those philosophical questions I have never been able to understand. At least, I've never been able to understand why there's a question.

    As far as I'm concerned, if you exercise some form of discretion in your life based on your thoughts and feelings, then you have free will. If you don't do that, then you don't. I think most people are in the first category. I really don't know anyone who is definitely in the second. Even people who have largely given up their right to make decisions have made a choice.

  9. "Ass, Gas, or Grass" There is no such thing as "free." Our world view has a strong influence on the decisions we make with our so-called "free will," but humans have the unlimited capacity to screw things up. Christianity has the view that we are all "bent" or "sinners," and that we must rely on an imaginary myth to free us from our sins. By that view, we can never make a "free will" decision. Buddhism has the view that we are all Buddhas from birth and we only need to bring forth the Buddha Nature by practicing compassion on all that we meet. By practicing this compassion, we can gain the "Buddha Wisdom" and learn to make decisions that will free us from the lower worlds and bring us to a higher life condition. Now THAT kind of free will would certainly make for a better world for all of us.

  10. Was it Samuel Johnson who said that reason told him that there was no such thing as free will but experience that there was?

    I'd have to understand what I am before deciding whether or not I have free will. I don't understand.

  11. So if you don't believe in free will then you believe everything you do is pre-ordained by God?

    1. I don't think so. It can be that everything you do is the result of your brain state 100 milliseconds earlier, and that brain state is determined by your brain state 100 milliseconds earlier. Each of those brain states can be the result of environmental events and the wiring of your brain.

  12. Wherever you come from and whatever background you have you are never compelled to do anything that you do not wish to do...unless you are hypnotized or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  13. I've tried to learn about the science of free will, but it is not for amateurs. For now, I say, scientifically, it sounds like there is no free will, but I still have to live my life and make decisions. I still have to think, so if you call that free will, I guess I have it.

    You might want to look into something called "motivated reasoning". It is the idea that before our consciousness starts to sort out reasons, something subconscious has already taken place, pushing that reasoning in one direction or another. Chris Mooney's new book "The Republican Brain: The Science of why they deny science" talks about this.

  14. I am confused by the issue but am not too concerned. But my intuitions fall in line with yours.

  15. Well, I think first we have to agree on a defenition of free will. If we mean a decision made outside of our own brains, then of course the answer is no, because decisions are made by the brain. But if you're driving and a block of concrete falls in front of your car, you're going to swerve. That is a decision, but made by the brain, which cannot be seperate from our willpower.

  16. I look at free will through the lens of faith (as in, everything predestined by God vs having free will). I believe God exists outside of time and knows everything, which means he knows what we all will choose, but that we do have free will to make those choices. I don't believe God forces choices onto anyone. As to whether or not we have free will within ourselves on a smaller scale, I would say that we are at the mercy of our subconscious which drives our actions. I think we have the power to discover our motives and work through our issues to change our actions, but that most of the time we operate on a level that isn't in tune with our motives ("as in, I feel an inappropriate amount of anger in response to situation X-why is that?") because we aren't in the moment enough. I'm probably missing your point entirely, but anyway that's where I stand.

  17. As humans always do, we lump up disconnected, partial meanings under one label: free will. If you are given choices in life everyday, then your freedom can only be practiced within the borders of these choices. Worse even, your free will depends on your general tendency of choice: you will most probably pick what's best for you and everyone on the long run. Otherwise, you may have to deal with deadly consequences. The will to live happily has initially been engraved inside you as a typical human being (through evolution, education or otherwise). Any other choice beside the one causing happiness in the long run is no longer a choice, just an evil, self-sadistic no-no option.

    This has always confused me. Religious teachers and preachers claim that free-will is compatible with the message sent from god while many intellectuals I know realize it's a big contradiction. The ability to market this contradiction as truth drives me to question the general capability of the human mind.

    Once you are rid of critical thinking, you are equally rid of a free will. Because, well, if you can't even see the choices (for example, the choice that Christianity is false and atheism is possible), then you cannot choose. And the amount of your free will is completely dependent on the broadness of your choices. And so, when you don't even have the ability to recognize these choices, you become imprisoned and stripped of freedom to choose or act.

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