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.


27 thoughts on “Free Will

  1. I must say this is the most clearly articulated review of determinism or rather written so I am able to understand it without throwing a hissy fit over it. Thank you.

  2. Wait. But if at a quantum level it is indeterministic, how could anything built upon that foundation of indeterminism be determined? Sure it seems like we can predict the movement of even atoms very well, but if there are things going on inside that atom that can’t be predicted then we are only estimating. I agree that once we arrive at the atomic level things proceed deterministically, but free will may come in the form of interactions at the sub-atomic level. It is impossible to say. Who knows, free will could even exist in the form of a ability to subtly change the laws of physics within a confined space (like our head), in order to put our own influence into the determined.

    • Yes, indeterminism could be true at the sub-atomic level, but that just gives us randomness, not free will. There is no “you” that has control over indeterministic forces. It is still the laws of physics – be they deterministic or indeterministic – that control your actions.

      • I did enjoy your passage and viewpoint; however, “just gives us randomness” is not a valid argument in the assumption that the quantum level could be easily described by a word such as “random.” Physics is the eventual arbiter of the “free will” debate, so please recognize that the philosophers of the past could not have had an understanding of the physical world as we do today. The laws of physics controlling our actions fits the “classical newton model” of understanding; however, the quantum world is much far more puzzling and illogical as it may seem, but it’s accepted truth. Let’s not forget we just confirmed with high certainty the existence of the Higgs field back in 2011.

        But physics aside I would like to spark another intellectual avenue in a form of a though experiment. Assuming an infinite universe, if you had lived before, then free will must exist as the contradiction of me being you is impossible.

      • With the right setup, it is not difficult to amplify an evenly distributed quantum mechanical indeterminancy into a macro level one. You are probably familiar with the Shrodinger’s cat example – an event with 50/50 probability of occurring (the geiger counter registering an atomic decay) is linked by a cascade of events to the 50/50 probability of the cat being alive or not. Similarly (and this is contrived, but may well be possible), a neuron could be set up in a state where it has a 50/50 probability of firing or not and determining some macro behavior.

        Given that, it is not difficult to imagine an entity representing ‘you’ that controls which of the equally probable occurrences will actually be observed.

  3. “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.”

    Replace “universe” with “God” and “Big Bang” with “beginning” and you sound like a Calivinist. (They believe that God determines everything, including our will).

  4. You talk about free will, yet you fail to address our comprehension of those 2 words, its meaning, and the sum of all the billions of social interactions that caused humans to in the first place come to ask the question “Do I have free will”

    Lets just hope that half of the internet, or well reddit at the very least, are a little more open minded.

    I went through a period of thinking inline with your post, I’m glad I broke out of that way of thinking – its irresponsible, yet I do agree its a good stepping stone in order to gather information and move forward with your perspective on things.

    tldr: OP is quite literally the opposite of thinking deeply, simply thinking introspectively.

    • How is what I wrote thinking introspectively? I cited objective science and facts. If I were thinking introspectively, I would believe my intuition and feelings that I have conscious control over my thoughts and actions. I am thinking objectively.

      • geez stg. You pretty much did nothing but attack him and say his position is dumb. I’m not sure you should be the one calling people close minded.

      • In black and white terms –

        I think its strange to strive to describe and define Free will with the severe lack of scientific information which we all as individuals have access to.

        I would like to think that as time continues to pass and research is conducted and shared, the ideas of free will and its purpose will be vastly improved upon

        And also to draw upon that fact that free will is at its very core a human concept, I would personally like to think there is alot more to it than the common 2 sides of the argument – determinism or cognitive “experience”.

        Its definitely a question worth asking, but its hard to resource it in this day and age and I would like to be much more optimistic that people will be better equipped to investigate this in passing years

  5. The very act of asking if we have free will is showing an inherent desire for freedom. Everything we do is for liberating ourselves from previously limiting experiences, whether real or perceived. Therefore maybe the question shouldn’t be whether we have free will or not, but how big the self really is.

  6. This is essentially my view as well. The subjective world is essentially decided for us (what we like, don’t like, our priorities, temperaments, desires, etc) – rather than creating it through free will, we discover it (or ourselves) through time. What “I” am is simply an observer, just as though I were sitting in a cinema watching a movie. The information my consciousness perceives is dependent on the information my brain feeds it. Whether that information is true makes no difference, and it’s an illusion to think I control it. What we might perceive as control, is really the brain choosing according to a hierarchy of priorities/desires which we have no control over.

  7. I’ve always struggled with the deterministic point of view and how it meshes with self-awareness. When faced with a clear choice–that is, a right and a wrong–where my “natural” (or predetermined) choice would be to choose the “right” answer–can I intentionally choose the “wrong” one just to prove that pre-determinism does not exist or that I do indeed have free-will. Or would you simply say that my decision to choose the “wrong” answer is also pre-determined and simply a product of my chemical makeup?

  8. I believe we do have free will and here is why. Yes I understand that neurons and electro-chemical processes in the brain cause the actions that we exhibit. Now, lets talk about human actions(specifically speaking, thinking actions) , neutral, negative and positive. Humans can CHOOSE to have a good, neutral or bad day depending on how they look at it. Why is that we can CHOOSE to have a good day? When something happens to us, neurons send signals ASKING us(not actually asking us) whether or not this is a good, neutral or bad thing. From that, we then CHOOSE one of the selected answers. Now the options good, neutral and bad maybe predetermined, simply because those are all the possible choices in which we judge things that happen to us, but the simply fact that we get to CHOOSE one of those choices cannot be denied. This is only one example also of why I think we have free will this and I have dozen’s more, one in particular, health. Your overall health is directly linked to how well those signals in your brain are firing. Aside from hereditary diseases or ailments that may be in your family, most individuals control their health. You control what you eat and how much you eat generally speaking. If a person is overweight, that’s their fault. No one is destined to be overweight. Those neurons in your brain sending signals go, ” Hey, your full,” or, ” Hey, you should work out,” or,” Hey, you should eat healthier.” Now you can CHOOSE to do those things or not. No one makes you not work out or work out, it’s all on you bubba. I know I sound super against your theory but I’m not. I don’t agree with it, but I don’t fully disagree with it. What I mean by that is that I think there’s a better way of saying that. I think the options given to us through thoughts are predetermined,but our actions are not. We choose our actions. The simple fact that I can type this post is my exertion of free will.

  9. I have to completely disagree that we as humans have no “free will.” Such a deterministic view of human consciousness implies that our life experiences are essentially in the hands of fate. The neurochemical processes which take place in the brain, as you have mentioned, are the object of study for neuroscience. Neuroscience can show associations between neuronal activity, thoughts, and behavior, but these associations do not necessarily prove causation of the others. The existence of neuroscience as a field of study does not seriously suggest that we are all merely just the outcome of the chemical processes of our brains in response to our brains of which we possess no conscious ability to direct. Likewise, the fact that the orbital attractions of our planets can be explained with deterministic physics bears no relevance to our ability to think freely. You acknowledge that deterministic physics do not explain anything at a quantum level; it is my belief that since interactions of the brain occur on a quantum level, determinism as a mathematical principle can not explain neurochemical interactions in the brain. A large portion of our ability to make decisions that better our sense of being is hindered by habitual responses towards societal conditioning of reward systems in the brain,

    If people had no “free will,” no actual participation in any conscious decision, would all laws, crimes, corporate policies, ideas, and inventions be the result of chemical processes, and the totality of DNA for life’s continuously unveiling story scripted from the start?

    I do not claim to have the answer to the question of whether or not free will exists. But I think it is a useless question. People rightly lose a sense of self-control when faced with the implication that everything is a product of forces beyond their control. By contrast, when exposed to techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which focus on directing conscious attention, many individuals gain increased feelings of control over their lives. The idea that there is no free-will suggests that all positive outcomes of behavioral therapy owe their success solely to neurological changes which take place in the interaction between the patient and the therapist.

    To me, the question of whether or not we have free-will in the sense of consciously being in control of our actions is a dubious and unproductive question. It is akin to asking the meaning of life. Modern science has provided us with evidence to use for speculation of such questions, though many people will use the inherent logic of within philosophical formulation will surely entail a myriad of elaborate back-and-forth arguments which will never resolve.

    If we are only the outcome of the inevitable fate of the universe and what we call “conscious efforts” are simply the result of biological processes, what should we do? Should we make no effort to do anything at all, liberated with the awareness that everything is happening as it is supposed to? Yes. That is a superb idea. There is no free-will so there is no reason to consciously do anything at all. I will just do nothing because the biochemical interactions of my brain have resulted in my incompetence as a human being. I am not at fault for anything I am saying at this point. Everything I say and do has already been determined or it is being determined constantly by forces over which I have ZERO control! I may have the idea that I have control over anything I think or say but really I do not!!! Why should “I” care what anyone thinks of what “I” do now that “I” know that “I” am only the chemical processes of my brain? I don’t care. If you care that I don’t care, it is really not “you” who cares but your brain who cares. Who is your brain to tell my brain that it should care? If “I” do not really exist and am really just the biological processes of my body and brain, why should my brain care about what your brain cares about?

    Conclusion: Determinism is infallible in describing consciousness. All of our “conscious efforts” R belong to R brains. My brain stupid sorry for stupid post my brain says.

      • Recent studies have shown that fluctuations within the brain do occur on a quantum level. Consciousness is a loop; it is not solely dependent on determinable interactions in the brain. We have the ability to change our consciousness by changing what we think. What we think is certainly heavily influenced by forces beyond our control, but we still have as much control as our brain allows us. Neuroplasticity is to some extent self-directed. To accept only classical physics in psychology and neuroscience is to completely rely on models of behaviorism and undermine the reality of internal states.This is a great article for information on quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology:

  10. So, I hope this is okay…’s not your normal intellectual chattiness – I don’t have facts or figures or statistics but this I do know… life has changed dramatically over time and really if you knew my background there would be no ability to change….I’d be locked into my past preconceived notions/neurons….whathaveyou….now don’t go correcting me cause I said I’m not coming from your statistical clinical intellectual determination. Are we all a part of something bigger than ourselves? Absolutely. I believe we are able to change our behavior as we live out life and find we must do so in order to survive. I am one of the out there geniuses who believes we have a God Who is has that highest power and Who actually created the Universe and this wee little planet we landed on…. I guess………when it is all said and done….we will know one day and like I tell those who have the same world view as myself……there will be a day when we will understand what was right on with what we thought we believed and what was bigtime craziness……… in the mean time……….I keep the peace all the way around cause I’m responsible for me and you are responsible for you. May you take amazing determined effort as you make choice filled interactive intellectual neuronistic conscious actions today on planet Earth. Ps….you don’t know my tone so please know none of this is sarcasm….I just thought I would throw something a bit different into the fire……….:) I like to have a little fun on planet earth so if you get mad……I won’t respond ….I keep my piece of the peace in the universe……that’s my part to play 🙂 also if you want to delete me I understand and no hard feelings since I’m not your normal cup of tea for this thread.

  11. I used to think very similarly to the author. Then someone asked me, “if we are biological machines that act only in accordance to the laws of physics, then what happens when you attempt to trace all of the causes of our behavior back to their origins?” The answer is that you cannot. As you attempt to reduce behavior to the processing of environmental inputs through a biological machine, you realize there is a point at which we cannot derive the causes of the inputs or the machine. We talk about quantum interactions as if we have determined that they are fundamental causes, but what makes them fundamental. The obvious next question is, “what causes quantum interactions?” We can continue this endless regression or we can humbly admit that there are questions that cannot be empirically answered through western science. It took me seventeen years to realize that my deterministic views were Inharmonious with the reality of my existence.

  12. Joe,

    This is a great question to ponder. Your writing seems to distill to: We are made of physical stuff. Current descriptions of the behavior of physical stuff indicate that, given sufficient knowledge of present conditions, the future is entirely determined.

    A brief aside mentions quantum randomness, then this is set aside. That’s fine, we do not need to go all the way down the Quantum Rabbit Hole. All we need is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty. This fundamental characteristic of the universe in which we find ourselves living is verifiable in any High-School physics lab, or even in most 1st world Kitchens.

    With uncertainty of even one particle (much less all of them), the statement “given sufficient knowledge of starting conditions… the future is deterministic” breaks down. The “Starting Conditions” cannot be known. Most people seem to think that the uncertainty principle speaks to “measurement”. It does not. It is a fundamental characteristic. Particles literally do not have deterministic location and momentum. They vary. The cannot “be known”. Again, it is important to note this is a REAL PROPERTY OF THE PARTICLE, and is not something that has anything to do with human science or engineering or theory or… it is just something that exists, if any sentient being examines the physical universe closely enough.

    Again, this is all easily observed. In fact, there are devices within a foot or two of every person reading this on a computer screen that literally would not work if all particles were entirely deterministic (tunneling diodes in electronics, for example).

    So… your proposition is moot. The “sufficient knowledge…” portion is simply not a characteristic of the universe in which we currently find ourselves. Given that we are made of physical stuff in this universe, then we can state with assurance that our future physical configuration CANNOT be deterministic.

    Free will? I certainly can’t answer the philosophic underpinnings of that question in a single internet post. I can however, state with the certainty that comes from things easily and repeatably demonstrable, that physical determinism does NOT exist in our current tableau.


  13. You assume materialism is true a priori. Thus, your conclusion of determinism follows. If all we are can be summed up by physical/chemical interactions, then determinism is the only ultimate conclusion. Within this tautological framework, brain states and thoughts are one and the same. Mind = brain, which in turn is determined by biology, chemistry, physics, et al.

    No free will – although the emergent property of consciousness creates the illusion of such. The question is, exactly “what” is being fooled? This is the Cartesian conundrum – I think, therefore “I” am – that is, I can’t doubt that I am doubting.

    If, however, dualism of some sort is true – then we can begin to entertain the notion of free will of some real sort. I would encourage you to read the Stanford page to at least expand your thoughts/discussion of free will:

    At minimum, I believe a definition of free will can be summed up as “the ability to choose, at the moment of our choosing, that which we most desire without undue external influence.” Essentially all rational legal, philosophical, and even theological systems have this tacit assumption of free moral agency.

  14. Pingback: Purpose | Thinking Deeply

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