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Where's Free Will

An Exploration of This Elusive Concept

Most of us don't question the notion of "free will." In some ways, the existence of "free will" just seems to be plain old common sense. I want to write this sentence; thus I place my fingers on the keypad and will them to type. There you go, done! However, most people have not tried to define precisely what free will is. And they haven't even considered the complexities underlying those two short words. This essay will seek to understand the meaning of free will and to explore whether or not it exists.

Some Working Definitions

I shall start by examining exactly what is implied when the term "free will" is used. First, although free will is often used in connection with one taking an action, an act itself does not offer proof of free will. Acts can be caused by external forces (someone pushing you so you fall) or can be unconscious (talking in your sleep, or snoring). Secondly, consciousness, memory, and the capacity to learn are also often associated with the notion of free will. However, many animals, that are not normally viewed as having free will, can learn, have memory, and are conscious; thus none of these attributes equates with the common distinctions free will supposedly provides. Here is a tougher distinction to make: voluntary activity. I want to sign this document, or have steak for dinner, and voila. I choose steak for dinner instead of the herb-stuffed porkchop. Yet, what voluntary activity means is simply that I am doing what I want to do, without physical coercion. To put a finer point on it: I "choose" something I'd rather do or have instead of something I personally feel is less appealing. That is, unless a peer is at hand who may be disappointed or offended with my choice. Of course, that would make the choice less appealing, wouldn't it? For example, I may be having dinner with a dear friend, who happens to be an Orthodox Jew. And that fact would influence my decision as whether to have the porkchop or not. The important thing to note when it comes to choosing a course of action is, the fact an animal makes a choice does not explain why he made it. The term free will implies choices are free from the laws of cause and effect. The question this essay addresses is whether our choices are caused completely by internal and external forces or whether we are free to choose a course of action regardless of those forces.

A final few definitions are important before moving on. A causal factor and a determinant are synonymous. And a determinant is something that either directly or indirectly causes or influences the outcome of a particular phenomena. For example, Betty buying her husband a new cue stick for his birthday and stimulating him into trying it out is an indirect determinant of the cue ball knocking the eight ball into the side pocket. And even though the cue ball would be directly responsible for the eight ball ending up in the side pocket, the cue ball would never have acted as it did had it not been for the direct and indirect influence of a whole network of causal factors. Another example: the sun and moon directly and indirectly influence rivers, lakes, and oceans to result in the phenomena that is referred to as the tides of the earth. Newton's third law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction is, in essence, a statement of determinism.

One who views all things, including human actions, as resulting solely and exclusively from factors or determinants is known as a "naturalist" or a "determinist." Put another way, a naturalist and a determinist believe that, although one makes voluntary, "conscious" decisions, various processes physical, biological, psychological, and social - have established the mindset that the individual bears at any given moment. We may deny but we cannot escape the consequence of the circumstances that precede us and surround us and which have made us into the individuals that we are. On the other hand, one who believes in the existence of free will holds that a person's choices are self-determined. In other words, one can make a choice to act a certain way regardless of, or despite his (or her) determinants. Thus, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1975) defines "free will" as "the power asserted of moral beings of choosing within limitations or with respect to some matters without restraint of physical or divine necessity or causal law." (Emphasis mine.) I call one who believes in free will a "me-ist," because this view is about the triumph of "me" over all causes. Others term this view "libertarian," because it promotes the idea that one is at liberty to act as he will.

On With the Hunt

On the most basic level, what goes into making you act? The search begins with the premise that all of your faculties, senses and perceptive powers reside in your brain and nervous system. This seems a safe premise, since we are no longer capable of making choices or taking actions that could be considered by anyone an expression of our will when our brains no longer function. We are inert when dead.

Each of us is born with a brain that has its unique and innate natural tendencies, capacities, strengths, and weaknesses. The brain has an unconscious portion that regulates at the least such things as digestion, heartbeat and respiration. It also regulates hormone production. The chemicals and electricity in the primitive part of our brains react to sensory experiences, both on an instinctive level (suck nipple) and as our instincts are modified by experience (biting leads to an unpleasant response). It is likely that childhood traumas have a lasting effect on the unconscious, and even on brain chemistry. Factors such as brain chemistry, hormones, and unconscious memories, that may be stirred up by present day situations, all have an effect on our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors - effects that in many (perhaps most) cases may be unknown to the person experiencing them. These factors are not within our control and certainly are not the result of our own deliberate making.

Unconscious factors affect our decision making process in both large and small ways. How many times do we think we could have made a better decision but for the strong emotions or stress we were feeling in the moment? On a simpler level, the phone number we forget today but remember tomorrow is in our brain, but unconscious for the time being. This fact may play a role in forcing us to take the time to pick up a phone book, or to simply skip a call we otherwise would have made.

Personal experience and other environmental circumstances further adapt and develop our brain into the unique state and functionality it has at any given moment. Just as any animal learns what works to its benefit and what does not under certain conditions, so much of our repertoire of behavior and our sense of what aspects of it are acceptable is learned (and refined) as we experience both the conduct of others and feedback to our own acts.

I assume that none of this reads as particularly revolutionary. But here is where the rubber meets the road. When we are faced with a situation our brain processes the sensory information it receives - perhaps a sexy glance from an attractive member of the opposite sex - we will react to this information on many levels. The most basic part of our brain may react with lust. The part of us that has learned lust is a sin may feel guilt. We may also feel disloyal to our own mate. If one's self concept is not very sexy, he or she may feel self conscious and bad. If his or her self-concept is gay, then a whole different reaction may result. Sooner or later we may actually start to imagine one or more courses of action. Do I want to flirt? Do more? Calm things down? Avoid? Experiment? Plan a seduction, or maybe slip into a daydream and let fantasy satisfy my desire?

Ultimately, we will make a decision on how to act in response to the stimulation. This decision may or may not be conscious, and it might not take into account consciously any of the above. Neither whether all or any of the process is conscious, nor the weight we place on each of these factors (and likely others) is a matter of choice. Our values and beliefs, our self-concept and sense of morality, our orientation to the opposite sex, and our level of satisfaction with our current mate all already exist. These and other preexisting components of ourselves, all of which have been formed by factors outside of our control, will determine the relative strength of our various reactions and the outcome.

In sum, when we act voluntarily, it is the result of our conscious mindset, as well as unconscious mental activity, which play a role we do not always experience simultaneously (perhaps the role may be inferred in hind-sight). In this way, our behavior is always determined by prior events and the resultant beliefs we hold, and our genes. The reasons we think and act a certain way are beyond our control. As Shopenhauer put it, "a man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills." A deterministic understanding of humans does not equate with a view that our lives are predetermined, or fated by some outside being. It means only that, despite our feeling that we have a choice and can act as we please, each of our thoughts, feelings and decisions are the inevitable result of causality.

Do You Believe in Magic?

Is it credible that some part of us (our free will) permits us to act free of our determinants in at least some instances? If so, how and why doesn't everything in the universe - atoms, cells, dogs, cars - possess this unnatural quality? Free will is unnatural, or perhaps more accurately, supernatural or magical since its existence would violate the law of causation. A belief that the individual has free will is a belief the individual has magical or supernatural powers.

Another interesting question is when does free will develop? We all accept that babies don't have it. Does a one year old beginning to talk have it? A two year old who can say "no"? And if we don't have it as a baby, then where does it come from? Does it just appear in different people at different times, and perhaps never appear in others such as the severely retarded? What if it misses and lands on a comatose person, but not on a Ph.D. candidate?

If we are left with free will as form of magic or supernatural power, then we are on a slippery slope. How do we ever know the truth about something unprovable, regardless of how logical it may seem? It could be that when I feel as if I am doing something I want to do out of my free will, in reality maybe it is my karma, my fate, the planetary alignment or my parent's sin that requires me to decide to act in a certain way. Or maybe that which we call one's free will is in reality someone else's will - how many people explain behavior as reflecting "God's will?" Maybe He, or maybe the neighborhood witch is the puppeteer pulling our strings? Of course, the bottom line is that any magical or supernatural explanation of human behavior and feelings is equally defensible or believable, depending on your bias. Free will is no more intrinsically credible than what we had for breakfast as a basis for explaining human actions. Providing any of these theories are true, how can science work with respect to humans (for example, medicine) or anywhere else, if there is undetectable factors afoot? The only rational and non-magical explanation of human behavior is determinism. In other words, there is no extra-physical part of us that governs our physical (including the feelings and thoughts in our brains) activities.

But What About

Why do some people fear or dislike naturalism and determinism? Some argue that free will gives one moral accountability. Similarly, it necessitates guilt, seen by some free will proponents as a healthy, controlling emotion. The lack of free will also makes pride a myth, for how can we have pride when our behavior is inevitable under existing circumstances? This may trouble some individuals. However, these arguments miss the point. These arguments are what philosophers call a logical fallacy; they address only the desirability of a belief in free will, not whether it exists.

Interestingly, the me-ist who likes guilt because it limits negative behavior is conceding that things we are taught do have an impact on our behavior - and that guilt acts as a determinant. Where we differ is that the me-ist assumes one can simply ignore guilt and all else, and choose to behave a particular way in any given situation. In other words, the me-ist thinks others have exactly the same mindset as himself (or herself); and the me-ist assumes he knows what he (or she) would decide or do in any situation. In contrast, a determinist believes we will decide to do something that we know will cause us to feel guilt only when we want to do it more than we don't want to do it - and that the reasons for wanting to do it, and the strength of the desire we experience isn't something we create for ourselves. If, again for reasons beyond our control, we cannot bear the guilt we anticipate, then we might be forced to act differently.

Someone may claim that the laws of causation do not seem applicable to quantum mechanics, and random theory instead appears to be at work there. However, quantum mechanics has been misinterpreted, and the idea of "randomness" has wrongly been interpreted to mean the occurrence of something entirely uncaused by prior events. The "random" movements of sub-atomic particles are random in the sense that no human measurement can account for or predict them. They are not random in the sense that they have no prior cause. These events occur according to probability and may have an as-of-yet-unknown cause. (Still, underlying causes, if they existed, would have effects that can be measured.) Besides, it has also been observed that nature has different rules for sub-atomic objects than it does for larger objects. We humans are much larger than sub-atomic structures and, like other things in the larger physical world, are subject to different principles. Quantum mechanics does not advance the argument in favor of free will.


So the answer to the question of "where is free will" appears to be that it is in the imagination of almost all of us, born out of what we have been taught and reinforced by our experience of the world. We feel many things are true, but this does not make them so. We need to look outside our feelings for evidence that they are based on reality. In the case of free will, there is no such evidence to place on the scale. On the other hand and with apologies to those who believe life is all a dream, the fact that we are physical creatures in a physical world is pretty well established. This fact subjects us to well established natural laws, including those of cause and effect. This evidence tips the scales in favor of the conclusion that all human behavior is determined and that there is in fact no such thing as free will.

2005 Edited from an essay written by Gordon M. Orloff

See also, Free As The Wind

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