Every once in a while, people wonder about the idea of Free Will. Whether it comes up in moral quandaries, a philosophy class in school, or a religious discussion, the debate over whether people actually have the ability to “choose” at all is one that interests many people.
I feel the need to weigh in on this subject. I’ve tried to write down what I feel are the fullest and clearest ways I can explain the issue – including that there are really two distinct connotations of the term “Free Will”. This article touches on that distinction, and from there focuses on explaining why the type of Free Will most debated about is clearly nonexistent.
How free are you?
You chose to begin reading this essay.
Now you may even be about to choose whether to continue or leave.
You probably have a variety of thoughts and feelings arising in your mind simply while reading these words. You might think to glance at the time in the corner of the screen. There is a constant stream of simple, seemingly completely un-coerced choices being made every moment. And periodically, you will need to make much bigger decisions and you will seriously think about them, weighing the options in your mind. And of course inevitably, among all these thoughts, feelings, and deliberations, we end up carrying out certain actions rather than others. We choose what to do.
This is what we experience all the time. It pervades the entire experience of being conscious. The act of making choices seems so utterly usual that many of us don’t even consider how our choices are actually made. Since it seems so intuitively obvious, many people have not seriously considered if anything we do is, in fact, actually free.
So that is what I want to explain: Does “Free Will” actually exist?
As with everything, the answer depends on how we define our terms. So what do the dictionaries say? Dictionaries generally define Free Will like this:
“The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.”
But perhaps you notice that this definition is not as clear as we really need. With just these words alone, questions start to come up as we think about what this means in detail. This is one of the reasons there has always been so much debate and confusion over it.
In my view, there are really two connotations of Free Will, which, for easy reference, I will call Practical Free Will and the Philosophical Free Will.
Practical Free Will is the concept that is useful in everyday life, and for assigning legal and moral responsibility to people. It describes a situation wherein a person (or other creature perhaps) is not having their brain, body, or situation forced, restricted, or manipulated in some way that is causing them to do something contrary to what they would do without that “foreign interference”. In this concept of Free Will, there are some blurred lines between what may be considered one’s “natural” state or what counts as force, but the general concept is understandable and useful.
This concept is also compatible with ideas like determinism, since it merely describes freedom from direct external or unnatural force on our natural state. It doesn’t address internal or natural factors. As human beings, we live in the illusion of free choice so it is perfectly fine to use words like “choice” and “Free Will” to describe responsibility for action. This is because it remains true that some mind indeed performed an action without overt foreign control, regardless of whether it could literally be called a “choice” or not.
Philosophical Free Will however, is more confusing. It is the concept that philosophers and theologians have debated for hundreds of years, and upon which the most central doctrines of Christianity and Islam are based. This concept of Free Will claims that for at least some of our thoughts and actions – namely, our most important ones – there is no deterministic constraint on our choices; which is to say, no causes prior to our thoughts that produce what we think and do. It asserts that these thoughts and choices have their causal origins completely within our mind with no ultimate dependence on anything else. This is the idea which says “I control my mind. I choose what I think and do.”
This second concept is the one that I mean to discuss – and disprove.
In discussions of this concept of Free Will, I have found that many people – both religious and not – tend to ultimately ignore arguments based in physical evidence, regardless of how substantial the points are. These people often end up appealing to what they consider the possibility that our ‘minds’ are not sourced in the physical, and that perhaps Free Will exists in some other realm that communicates with our bodies.
At first this seems technically irrefutable. But besides these arguments simply lacking evidence, they suffer from a more fundamental flaw. I think that the Philosophical concept of Free Will is unequivocally false even if you assume the existence of a ‘soul’ or any other supernatural idea, and I will explain why that is. In fact, I will exclusively use the term mind throughout this article, rather than brain or other term, as it avoids having distraction resulting from disagreement over what and where the mind really is.
It seems to me that the debate and confusion over the existence of Free Will is really one of definitions, and that is why I claim such an absolute stance on the non-existence of Free Will. My view is based in the issues inherent to very concepts of what “choice” and “Free Will” even are.
Therefore, I will not bother using an inductive argument based on our current knowledge of the brain, culture and so forth, to infer the most probable conclusion. I think most people are aware of that evidence already, and it does not address the most fundamental problem with the concepts of choice and Free Will themselves.
So instead, I will take a much simpler and more convincing route. I will present a very basic argument by deduction, drawing upon the definitions of these terms so we can shed light on the real issue in question.
The implications of this argument and its conclusions can impact us in numerous ways. They extend to the central ideas of the world’s major religions, and prove that not even a god could be said to have the sort of Free Will the faithful claim. And of course, it certainly has the power to alter our view of ourselves.
Exposing the concept of Free Will
The problem with this religious or philosophical conception of Free Will is more than that it is simply unlikely or false. Free Will is incoherent. As far as we can imagine, it could not even hypothetically be true.
I say this because, upon scrutiny, no descriptions of this philosophical type of Free Will amount to any actual meaning. As I will explain, there seems to be nothing presented by the idea of “Free Will” that even could be true, in any universe, in any theory.
Remember that Free Will is the idea that each of us has the potential to make at least some choices freely without any ultimate constraint; that “I control my mind”; that choices are “caused by consciousness”. But here is the problem: what could these descriptions actually mean?
When we say that we made a choice or that a choice occurred in our consciousness, then we must ask ourselves how that could actually mean “free will”.
Consider anything you have done in your day so far, no matter how minor or unimportant the action was. Why did you actually choose to do that instead of something else? Was it actually even possible for you do make a different choice?
Upon scrutiny we realize the answer is “no”. There is no way around it, for this point is inescapable:
1) Choices either have a prior cause or do not have a prior cause. There is no conceivable alternative situation beside these. If this premise is true, then what follows from it is true.
2) If they do have causes, then at some point in the chain of causation which lead to the choice, there must be a cause which itself cannot be called a choice by definition. And hence every such choice is actually deterministic and not a ‘choice’ at all.
3) Or, some choices do not have a cause – meaning the deciding factor which causes some choices is literally random. Thus one’s mind cannot be said to make a choice, since the thoughts and actions were ultimately determined by a random event – which again, is not a choice by definition.
In both cases, the actions we call “choices” are entirely constrained by events which either cannot be called “free” or cannot be called “choice”. Thus our choices are simply the effects of events which are not choices themselves. It’s that simple.
So the reality is that what we call “choices” cannot be made without constraint. We do not, and cannot, choose the thoughts and impulses that actually determine what we choose. Perhaps the best way to remember the problem with Free Will is this statement by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
And therein you can see the problem with the concept of Free Will: a person acts in accordance with their desire, but their desires come about in a deterministic way – and likewise an action performed as a result of a desire is also a deterministic operation.
So in what way are we “choosing” our thoughts and choices? Such a concept is incoherent, because when we say that we determine our own thoughts and make our own choices, we can only possibly be referring to the fact that thoughts and choices simply appear in the mind.
This is because any choice has a point of origin, a point prior to which there were no causes. So anyone who says that at least some choices come from the mind alone, must admit that in such cases there would be no prior causes, and thus the only description of such “choices” would be that they are random. And that is not Free Will because randomness is not choice.
Then the only other option is the deterministic one: that the mind is just part of a greater system of cause and effect. And in that case as well, there is no meaning to “Free Will” since what ultimately determines our choices is not our mind.
No matter how you try to look at it, the philosophical concept of “Free Will” is meaningless.
Clarifying the details
Many people still don’t understand the issue at this point. So I will address the fundamental issue even more explictly, and present some examples to show why there is no way that Free Will can exist.
Remember, at the most fundamental point where their outcome is caused, choices must either be the result of behavior which is:
B) random, or
C) a combination of A and B.
We cannot conceive of any alternative way that reality could operate. Our only other option is that comprehending the true nature of causation may lie outside the capability of the human mind. But that is empty speculation which applies equally to every idea, so we must accept these specific options in the same way that we accept facts of any other sort. In other words, we can be sure that Free Will is impossible to an equal degree of certainty as anything else we appear to know.
So in which general way are thoughts and choices appearing in the mind? What causes them to be what they ultimately end up being?
Is the answer ‘nothing’? Nothing causes our choices to specifically be what are? Then Free Will does not exist because the mind’s thoughts and choices are ultimately random.
Or is the answer ‘its choices are caused by its nature’? Then Free Will still does not exist, because thoughts and choices merely arise in the mind in exact accordance with that nature, like a machine.
Or are there an infinite regression of choosers? That scenario would have no origin and hence no choice that began it – hence nothing to call Free Will. It is an infinite deterministic chain.
Or if we stretch our imaginations even to the point of conceiving a situation “beyond logic”, could the case somehow be one where choices cause choices in a circular way? But in this case too, there would be no original choice which caused it be as it is. We merely have a circular deterministic chain instead of a linear one.
In every way you try to look at it, there is no idea which can be described as a free choice. So from a literal perspective, the word “choice” simply describes the purely subjective perception that a mind has of controlling outcomes, rather than the objective fact that the mind is part of a system of entirely constrained actions.
The real nature of mind and choice
That may seem a presumptuous heading given the limits of what we currently understand about the mind. But I am not attempting to discuss the details or technical aspects of how a mind comes to be or how it operates. I am merely describing the most basic, necessary nature of choice.
In light of the points mentioned thus far, we must accept a strange and fascinating truth:
That we do not know – and cannot know – what we will intend to do until the intention itself arises; that we do not, and cannot, make any choice until the cause of that choice has already occurred; that our wills are determined by things that are not our wills; and that therefore, every apparent choice is ultimately part of a great system of causation and occurrence consisting of everything which exists.
From this, we realize that “I” or “myself” can only be defined as the thoughts which occur in a mind as a result of the structure or “nature” of a mind. So what you call “you” is inevitably just awareness of thoughts, feelings, and actions occurring. “You” are the experience of thought occurring, not the cause of thought occurring. I am not what chooses my thoughts; I am these thoughts. What I call “myself” is an interwoven part of the complete system we call Reality.
And furthermore, I must conclude that the misperception of Free Will arises because the prior causes of our thoughts are not themselves experienced as consciousness, so the subjective perception is that those thoughts are caused at the same time they are first experienced.
So when we speak of Free Will, we are faced with one possible conclusion: that all “choice” and perceptions of “self” are just a mind functioning according to its current structure and influences. That’s it, in all its disturbingly beautiful simplicity.
But now you’ve probably been jumping to make some objections, of which I can preempt several already.
1) Doing nothing
“If there’s no Free Will then why don’t I just sit around and do nothing and see what happens?”
That reaction is due to a misunderstanding of what I am saying is going on. In fact, that reaction to the idea of Free Will not existing is itself an un-chosen thought; that reaction is itself not a choice. It was simply the result of your mind’s structure and influences – chemical or immaterial, whichever you prefer – as they were at that point in time.
Then there are people who think that if free will didn’t exist, we would somehow know that was the case. “We just don’t feel like zombies”, they say. But if you did not have Free Will, how would you know? In your actual experience of thought and intention, what would be different? Nothing. A mind being aware does not preclude that mind being a completely deterministic machine. So whether Free Will existed or not, the experience would seem identical to the mind either way. So this is not a serious objection, and even regardless, it cannot refute the argument for the non-existence of Free Will that has already been explained.
Then there is the objection about change – especially changing one’s own self – which I think is the most interesting. For example, you might be thinking “But our minds can change over time. We can even make the choice to change our own behavior, thoughts, and feelings! So obviously we’re not just like machines! Free Will must exist!”
Considering the nature of the mind’s ability to change in the context of there being no Free Will is extremely interesting, yet so plainly simple. There is actually nothing unique about it.
When you make any choice to change something about yourself, such as trying to inspect and modify your own behavior, what do you think is making those choices and doing that modification? When you decided to reflect on your own actions, what caused that decision to occur in your mind? When you thought about your own thoughts, what was causing that thinking?
Inescapably, the answer is not “choice”. The mind’s own substance, structure, and the influences on it, are resulting in subsequent thoughts in, and changes to, its own state and operation. Every one of those thoughts and changes “you” make, is itself a process of the current state of your mind and the factors that affect it. You could look at it as your mind resolving a problem somewhat like a computer running automated repair processes. That notion may not be romantic enough to please many people, but it is sound.
Another analogy could perhaps be made to a tree. A tree changes shape and direction throughout its life as it grows and seeks sunlight, just like a person changes feelings and opinions through their life as they respond to their experiences. But that does not mean the tree is ‘choosing’ to do those things. Even if we suppose trees have consciousness in the same sense we do, they would just think they were choosing to grow as they do – entirely despite them merely doing what is dictated by their structural function and the forces that affect them.
Now what about when you try to motivate someone to work hard or to be good? You are in fact not appealing to Free Will and hoping they land on the view you want them to land on. Literally speaking, your mind is simply processing information and responding in the way it must.
Interestingly, this means that trying to persuade or convince someone is technically a matter of force. Your mind is trying to deterministically impact a situation. If people could literally ‘freely choose’ what to believe, for example, then there would be no point in debate or discussion. We would have no ability to persuade at all because the outcome would not be sufficiently deterministic. But we all know already that we must present the right words, images, emotions, and ideas to cause their mind to change – if it is even capable.
3) Moral responsibility
The most common objection to the argument that there is no free will, is the claim that if free will does not exist, then no one is morally responsible for their actions and we have no basis upon which to condemn or punish anyone.
There are two problems with this. The first is that it is simply incorrect to assert that moral responsibility could no longer exist. That view is based on a culturally traditional, preconceived notion of what moral responsible entails, as well as the purpose of condemnation and punishment.
But this whole objection is actually irrelevant regardless. And that brings me to the second problem with this objection:
The ability to assign moral responsibility is completely irrelevant to whether Free Will actually exists or not. To reject an argument about a matter of fact on the basis of moral implications would be an appeal to consequences fallacy. That is, to reject a claim due to one’s perceived consequences of believing it, rather than on logical grounds that would actually relate to it being true or false.
The argument of moral responsibility is no different than the claims of fundamentalists who argue that we should believe in God because if there is no god then there would be no morals. Both are appeals to consequences, and I think that both claims are based in unnecessary preconceptions of what morality even is and how it must function.
But as many of us know, one can adopt a more realistic view of the world and lose nothing of morality. In fact, the new perspective can reveal interesting ideas that expand our understanding, not diminish it.
So let’s return again to the big picture.
We are entirely an inseparable part of a whole moving system of reality. The things we are – every thought, every feeling, every choice, every moment of awareness – are constantly changing parts of the process itself. Control is completely an illusion. Our free will is not just limited – it doesn’t exist. There is no Free Will. There is only what happens.
To me, this is one of the most profound realizations of human experience.
The following italicized paragraph is a paraphrase of an argument by a free will proponent. The structure and logic of their argument has been retained, and the same examples have been referenced as in the original context.
“People who argue against free will only argue against other people despite claiming that people are just like any other complex system, operate in a deterministic manner, and have no free will. So why do they not argue with things like the weather or someone’s personal computer? Since they only argue with people they are admitting that there is something different about people, in that they must have free will.”
The answer to why we argue with humans instead of the weather or a device like a laptop is simply that the structure of the systems are different (that being your body and brain in the case of a human), not that any of these systems have any more free will than another.
Different types of systems are affected by different actions and do not process the same types of stimuli (such as sound) in the same ways. If-and-when machines are able to be built with brain-like structures that can interpret human language and reason about it independently, then we will indeed be able to argue with those computers and try to convince them to hold believe different things. Note that you do not interact with the weather or a laptop in the same way as each other either just because both of them lack free will.
You deal with all things you come into contact with in different ways according to how your brain perceives that they process stimuli and, by extension, how you can affect them, including brain-to-brain communication.