Free Will

The question of whether we have free will has important implications for our daily lives. It informs whether we control our thoughts and actions. The answer to this question shapes how we think about responsibility – can we be blamed for our wrongdoings, or can we take credit for our achievements? It also has implications for our conceptions of purpose and meaning in our lives.

First, what do I mean by free will? I think how we define it matters because a lot of the philosophical debate around this issue is semantic, and I feel like there would be a lot more agreement if we were clearer about our terms. By free will, I mean your ability to make choices that are unconstrained, and they are yours alone; you are ultimately responsible for your choices. In order to have free will, there has to be a “you” – a self – that has agency, control, and independence. If you have free will, you are the author of your thoughts and actions.

But what does science say about this? Does it allow for this kind of freedom? To answer this question, let’s examine what science tells us causes our thoughts and actions. Based on our current understanding of neuroscience, the mind is the product of the brain. All of our thoughts, emotions, and actions are the result of electro-chemical interactions between neurons in the brain. If our actions and thoughts are determined by the mechanical workings of neurons and electro-chemical processes in the brain, then it is ultimately the laws of physics that determine our behavior. Thus, in this sense, we are automata – essentially biological machines.

And as most of us can agree, machines don’t have free will. A machine’s actions are caused by a prior physical event, which in turn was caused by a prior event, in an unbroken chain of cause and effect going back in time. This concept is known as determinism, and I posit that every event in the universe is bound by it. I will grant that science is not certain whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or indeterministic (apparently determinism seems to break down at the quantum level), but most things at the macroscopic level are clearly deterministic. The planets, comets, and stars all move deterministically, and their motions can be predicted precisely. Continental drift and other geological phenomena are deterministic systems. Similarly, living organisms, including human beings, are physical beings that are determined by physical laws. In principle, if one had enough information, human behavior would be completely predictable – as predictable as how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.

Even though it seems like we have a self – that there is an “I” that is experiencing the world and making choices and decisions, science tells us this is an illusion. Our thoughts and actions are caused by neuronal activity, which in turn is caused by chemical and physical processes. Thus, free will is an illusion, and your behavior is not freely chosen by “you” – it is determined by the laws of physics.

What implications does this understanding have for our lives? First, it challenges how many of us think about responsibility. Can we really take credit for achievements or be blamed for wrongdoing if those actions were ultimately caused by physical processes? We do not choose how our brains work, or for that matter, our genes or environment. I think this insight should give us more compassion for those who make mistakes, and humility when we accomplish things.

This understanding about free will has another implication for our lives. Many people often say that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want their actions to have purpose and meaning. Somewhat paradoxically, I believe my conception of free will instills even more significance and meaning in my actions than a more traditional view of free will would. I believe that because my actions are caused by the laws of nature, they do not belong to me; they belong to the universe. That is, what I do in my life is the universe itself acting through me. In this sense, my purposes, goals, and desires are the purposes, goals, and desires of the universe. Our actions are part of a larger system – a grand play – that was set in motion from the Big Bang until now. We may have to give up on the idea that we have free will, but we can take solace in the understanding that our lives are part of a much, much bigger story.