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Elaborating on the idea of free will

My post yesterday on the coming death of free will generated some interesting comments, with some questioning what I meant by the term ‘free will’ and whether the descriptor of ‘free’ added anything to the discussion or merely confused it. So I thought I would clarify my stand and elaborate on what I think is going on.

All that I mean when I say I don’t have free will is that when I become aware that I am in the process of making a decision to do something, which is what we normally think of as an act of will freely made, that act has already been set in motion and all that is now happening is that I am becoming aware that the act will shortly take place. This applies even when we ‘change our minds’, something that we think of as the quintessential act of free will. If I decide to do something and at the last minute change my mind and do something else, that entire sequence was already set in motion before I became aware of it. So rather that ‘changing my mind’, it is better to say that my mind was changed and then later I became aware of it.

Thinking about whether we have free will can, at the best of times, quickly drag one into an infinite regression and this is what makes the idea so uncomfortable and discussions fraught with confusion. If I say that my decision to type these words was not consciously made but emerged from some subconscious part of my brain, then what about my decision to make the decision to type these words, and so on.

Part of the problem lies with using the word ‘decision’, since that alone implies an act of will by some agency. It is perhaps less confusing to think of ourselves (bodies and brains) as integral entities that respond to outside stimuli in ways that are determined by our personal histories. We are born and grow up to have the brains and bodies that we do. When we encounter some outside stimuli, we respond in particular ways that are determined by our bodies and the stimuli. Different people can respond in different ways to the same stimuli because they have different histories, though there is a lot of commonality because of our shared evolutionary history.

It is like a car in motion. When the driver presses on the accelerator the car speeds up. Because of the way the car is built (its history), pressing on the accelerator (the outside stimulus) causes it to speed up. A naïve person sitting in the rear seat who did not see the driver press the accelerator but senses the change in motion may be deluded into thinking that it was the car that ‘decided’ to speed up when all it was doing was responding to a stimulus. All cars will speed up when the accelerator is pressed because of the common history of the evolution of cars, but there will be variations in how quickly they respond.

So when I decide to make a cup of coffee in the morning, it is due to my history that has built up a repertoire of actions to respond to the various stimuli that are part of my daily routine. So in one sense “decisions are being made by my body”, but the passive phrasing is a more accurate representation of the reality than the active form of saying “I make decisions”. One can say that this is an act of will made by me and as long as we are clear that this is all that is implied, then there should be no confusion.

The reason that we seem to be somewhat unpredictable in our behavior is likely due to the complexity of the system that causes us to be sensitive to minute changes in external conditions. Infinitesimally small changes in the external stimuli may cause macroscopic changes in behavior that give us a sense of being spontaneous. I suspect (but do not know) that the complexity of our brain’s neural networks result in the equations governing their workings to be similar to that of weather systems in that they are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Waking up to a neighbor’s dog barking instead of the alarm clock may set in motion a different chain of neural events that cause me to make tea in the morning instead of my normal coffee. I may not make the connection to the different cause of waking and instead see this as a spontaneous act of will, simply because all the processes that went into ‘making my decision’ lay beneath the surface of my consciousness.

Because of the complexity of the neural system and the sensitivity to initial conditions, it seems unlikely, even with the increasing sophistication of fMRI techniques, that we will be able to detect and interpret brain patterns that enable us to predict behavior more than at best a few tens of seconds in advance, the way that weather predictions become highly unreliable when projected more than a few days ahead.

The interesting question (for me at least) is why, if we have no ‘free will’, we evolved to think we do. It may simply be a byproduct of the evolution of our tendency to think that there are active agents driving events. This does have an evolutionary advantage and is the same tendency that is thought to have originally created the idea of a supernatural power or god in order to explain natural events that seemed mysterious and capricious. As soon as we evolved to have a sophisticated level of consciousness, it would be natural to think that our actions were being driven by an agent and from there it is but a small step to invent the idea of a disembodied mind or a soul that thinks, makes decisions, and gives commands to our bodies.

This is all highly speculative of course. But once we realize that we are entirely material beings behaving according to the laws of nature, the idea of a nonmaterial entity being an integral part of us and yet acting independently of our bodies and giving orders to it makes little sense. Unless one abandons materialism and the laws of science, it seems hard to retain the idea of free will.


  1. Jared A says


    Again, I thought that the idea of free will as you are describing it has long been dead in the world of philosophy. True, I’m an amateur so it would be good to get a real philosopher to chime in, but I have not seen an example of a modern philosopher take the position that spontaneous decision is unfettered by history. In fact, this doesn’t require that you be a materialist –an issue that has been known for centuries. For example, even the rare modern substance dualist like David Chalmers argues that the consciousness-substance is merely “piggy-backing” on physical substance with no independent effect [see his Zombie Chalmers example]. The more usual modern questions are things like:

    “Why do we think we think?” – You pose this question, and there are many philosophers who have chimed in on this.

    “Are the properties of the brain irreducible to its parts?” This is property dualism – it’s not usually considered the same as substance dualism but I still don’t like it. I doubt you will either.

    “Does the mind include just the brain, or does it functionally extend over more space and matter than that? Perhaps even overlapping with other minds.” This is in many ways analogous to Richard Dawkins’s extended-phenotype hypothesis. I am quite receptive to this idea.

  2. Alan Trachtenberg, MD, MPH says

    If you stop and think about it, you probably have free will. I mean that literally. We do have free will, we just rarely use it. Most of our day-to-day actions, I agree, are not acts of free will. However, sometimes, on the verge of the action taken on the usual impulse, we stop and realize that perhaps this impulsive action is not such a great idea. If we stop and think and apply logical analysis to the action we were about to take, then it is possible to avoid the impulsive act and use our free will, including logical cognitive processing that impedes and over-rides the usual impulse to “just do it.” If for no other reason, this is an important clinical concept in behavioral medicine. For someone with anger management problems, drug abuse issues and many other behavioral disorders, if we can train a patient to simply “stop and think” about it, They can use their “free will” to change or avoid problematic actions based on impulse. Imppulsive acts, I would say, are not taken with free will, but measured choices based on logical analysis with that newest part of our brains probably are, when you “stop and think about it.”

  3. Kevin K says

    decisions are being made by my body

    Sorry. No. The decisions are made by your brain.

    You’re still engaging in this notion that somehow the non-conscious part of your brain is somehow either “not you” or “not brain”.

    It’s a double-backflip reverse substance dualism.

    Still not buying it. The decisions are made. They’re made by you. They’re specifically made by your brain.

    Any other notion invokes magic. Not buying it.

  4. Jared A says


    A agree with you that the confusion is in the meaning of the term “I”.

    However, I disagree that all decision are made by your brain. Some are made by brain + other parts of your body or even those other parts alone. There is nothing logically inconsistent about saying that your liver “decides” to increase its aldehyde dehydrogenase production in response to increased blood alcohol content.

    I recall some research that shows that the physiological responses to emotion (such as “gut clenching” when you are angry) are actually the prime movers for the emotion. That is, if you remove the response your eliminate the emotion. All this does is delegate the emotion away from the brain, not dissociate the emotion from “you”.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I am not sure of the distinction you are making. Surely the brain is part of the body? That was my point. I am not making the statement that the non-conscious part of the brain is ‘not me’. I am saying that there is one ‘me’ and that it is all material but that there is a conscious part and a non-conscious part, all of which are part of my body (which includes the brain).

  6. says

    Real philosopher chiming in (though not one who specializes in debates over free will).

    According to a recent survey, 60% of research philosophers are compatibilists. That is, they (we) hold that the morally relevant aspect of free will is captured by facts about psychology (we sometimes really can and do choose what we will do, and that makes us responsible for those actions).

    About 14% are libertarians; i.e., they are dualists who hold that some of our decisions result in violations the laws of physics, and this is what makes these actions ours.

    And 12% think we have no free will (because the notion is incoherent, or because freedom is incompatible with determinism, and we are effectively determined).

    Mano: I don’t think I disagree with much of what you say, but I have two minor complaints:

    1. You seem inclined to say that my awareness is “me”, but less inclined to say that pre-awareness decision making is “me”. That seems like a mistake. It’s all me.

    2. The debates over free will typically focus on questions of power (“Could I have had tea, even though I did have coffee?”), and responsibility (“Am I to blame for that action, given that it was determined?”), not so much over potential disconnects between awareness and decisions.

    (My own take is here, if you’re interested.)

  7. Mano Singham says


    As to point 1, the disagreement between us is likely due to imprecision on my part. I too think it is all ‘me’ even though it is sometimes convenient to split it into ‘awareness me’ and ‘pre-awareness me’.

    As to the second point, I think the really interesting issue is how we assign and address responsibility for actions, especially in the legal system which was designed with the traditional idea of free will in mind.

    Thanks for the link.

  8. Jared A says

    Thank you! Very informative. 15% libertarians is only slightly large than I expected; being a non-expert means that I will only take the time to read things that interest me.

    It seems that I am a compatabilist, and based on the OP I presume Mano is as well.

  9. mnb0 says

    “as integral entities that respond to outside stimuli in ways that are determined by our personal histories”
    That body and mind are integral entities is out of the question. But determined? Why?
    Your description of free will seems quite self-referential. We don’t have free will means that the act of decision making is set in motion before we become aware of that act/decision. hence we don’t have free will.
    That doesn’t exactly provide extra information.
    I prefer to approach the subject from a strict materialistic point of view. Then the relevant questions are: is free will a useful notion to understand how the brain works? Ie is there somehow a place for it in the models neuroscientists are developing? What exactly is the relation with psychology? Finally, if free will is a useful notion, how exactly should we define it?
    As far as I know there are no conclusive answers yet, bar one: the idea of a Homunculus doesn’t work. Like KK wrote, if free will is a useful notion ór must be abandoned, then within the frame of body/mind monism.

  10. Jared A says

    PS – Physicalist. I just read your article that you linked. I really like it, not just that it is clear and succinct, but that I think you deal with the comments quite well. Of course, I would since I agree with you already.

  11. davidhart says

    I don’t think that’s quite what’s meant here. You’re drawing a contrast, as far as I can see, between actions taken before you have developed a conscious rationale for doing them, and actions taken only after some process of thought that you are to some extent consciously aware of. But in neither case is there any good reason to believe that the process is not determined by prior causes. Some states of reality, including external stimuli and the internal set-up of your brain, will cause you to act spontaneously without giving any conscious thought to why you are doing what you are doing, while other states of reality will cause you to go through a process of reasoning before you act – that is, your subconscious brain pauses to fill your consciousness in on what you’re about to do, rather than just directly sending a signal to the muscles. Which is a valid and worthwhile distinction, but I don’t think that the latter scenario constitutes free will in the traditionally understood sense of an ability to defy deterministic causality.

  12. Marshall says

    The basic premise of asking about free will vs. determinism is flawed, because it comes with the inherent assumption that we possess some matterless ethereal “soul” that is capable of making decisions. In actuality, the more scientists study the brain, the more areas of consciousness are ascribed to certain parts, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that every aspect of thought is derived from the arrangement and firing patterns of our neurons.

    The second fault I find in the question is the definition of what exactly a “decision” is. A decision is a choice between two or more outcomes, arrived at by the weighing of various factors associated with each. Soul-ists posing the question seem to think that people “decide” based on NOTHING at all. This is NEVER the case! Our decisions are always based on something–if you choose mint chocolate chip icecream over cookies ‘n’ cream, it’s probably because you like it more, it has less calories, you know you’ll get a bigger scoop, or you haven’t had it in a while and you crave the novelty. Try telling people to choose with only their soul–they’ll fail every random number test every created miserably.

    So to summarize what I’ve just said: the free will question is moot because 1) we cannot make decisions independently of our brains (there is nothing to make a decision), and 2) a decision is inherently deterministic by definition. “True” spontaneous behavior has yet to be shown, and I seriously, seriously doubt it ever well.

    So if you want the pessimistic viewpoint that we are deterministic, so be it. I see determinism and free will as identical.

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