On free will-16: A sense of self in the absence of free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

According to the writer Isaac Beshevis Singer, “We must believe in free will, we have no choice.” It is a funny line because of its paradoxical nature and yet also profound because of its multiple layers of meaning. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as saying that belief in free will is likely hardwired in our brains and we are thus compelled to believe in it, whether it is true or not. On the other, it implies that the idea of free will is so important to our sense of self as autonomous agents and to the way that our society is organized that even if we realize it is a fiction, it is a fiction that we must adopt because to abandon it might lead to cognitive confusion and social disarray. This series of posts has tried to show that this fear is unwarranted and in this, the last post, I want to address the issue of what it all means for our sense of self.

Does the lack of free will mean that I am an automaton, simply obeying the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, and that my sense that ‘I’ am controlling my actions is an illusion? If by ‘I’ we mean an autonomous agent that acts independently of the body, then yes, that is an illusion. But what we mean by ‘I’ is more complex than that. As several alert readers have pointed out, even though this series of posts has argued that free will as traditionally conceived does not seem to exist, I have made statements that suggest that I am dependent on the concept, writing things like, ‘This may also explain why it is so hard to change the way we are used to doing things and the importance of developing good habits early.” As one emailer astutely pointed out, “If there is no free will how do you ‘change’ or ‘develop’?”

As another example, I wrote that there is benefit to society punishing crimes as a means of deterring future crimes. But this implies that society is making a choice of one policy over another. Who exactly is doing this choosing and what does it mean in the absence of free will? Similarly, while we can understand why devoting hours to practicing tennis can create brain networks that make good choices of play automatic, what was behind the decision by expert players to ‘choose’ to devote so much time to this kind of activity in the first place? Was that choice also predetermined?

Such questions go to the heart of our misgivings about the lack of free will.

Part of the problem is that our language is so immersed in the idea of free will that it is hard to avoid the kind verbal ditches that I appear to have plunged headlong into. Trying to carefully formulate sentences to avoid the impression of acting out of free will leads to convoluted language. Fortunately for us, as I said in the previous post, for most practical purposes, we can continue to act and speak as if there is free will without it creating any operational differences that we can detect, at least at a coarse, everyday level. One needs to go into the laboratory to see these effects.

But before we can agree to continue to use the language developed around the fiction of free will because it is familiar and simpler, we have to come to a consensus on what it really means, in the absence of free will, to say that ‘I’ ‘decide’ or ‘choose’ to do one thing instead of another.

Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, p. 174) tries to clarify this point:

In the traditional conception of a ghost in the machine, our bodies are inhabited by a self or a soul that chooses the behavior to be executed by the body. These choices are not compelled by some prior physical event, like one billiard ball smacking into another and sending it into a corner pocket. The idea that our behavior is caused by the physiological activity of a genetically shaped brain would seem to refute the traditional view. It would make our behavior an automatic consequence of molecules in motion and leave no room for an uncaused behavior-chooser.

One fear of determinism is a gaping existential anxiety: that deep down we are not in control of our own choices. All our brooding and agonizing over the right thing to do is pointless, it would seem, because everything has already been preordained by the state of our brains. If you suffer from this anxiety, I suggest the following experiment. For the next few days, don’t bother deliberating over your actions. It’s a waste of time, after all; they have already been determined. Shoot from the hip, live for the moment, and if it feels good do it. No, I am not seriously suggesting that you try this! But a moment’s reflection on what would happen if you did try to give up making decisions should serve as a Valium for the existential anxiety. The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortations of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it is you. If the most ironclad form of determinism is real, you could not do anything about it anyway, because your anxiety about determinism, and how you would deal with it, would also be determined. It is the existential fear of determinism that is the real waste of time. (Boldface emphasis is mine.)

The lack of free will in the traditional sense need not mean we are diminished somehow, unless our sense of self is totally intertwined with a belief in the existence of a ghost in the machine. Who we are and what we do are the products of our personal and evolutionary histories, along with some randomness thrown in along the way, all completely subject to the laws of nature. All these combine to make us unique and react in individual ways to the situations we encounter. The unconscious brain is not some kind of alien despot making ‘us’ (i.e., the conscious brain) slaves to its bidding whether we want to or not. The unconscious brain is as much truly us as the conscious brain and to the extent that we use the locution of it ‘making’ us do things, those things are completely consistent with who we are.

When we ‘choose’ one option over another, our brain really does go through the process of weighing all the options and consequences before arriving at a verdict and issuing a command to our motor neurons to execute an action. The fact that all this processing of information takes place behind a screen that is opaque to us, and that our conscious brain becomes aware of it only after the decision has been made, does not alter the fact that ‘we’ made the decision.

Our bodies and our minds, our actions and our thoughts, are all part of one internally consistent biological system. The many parts of our brain are working all the time, performing all their functions in concert with one another. The fact that we are aware of only the conscious part of it, and that this part may not be the instigator or driver of our actions, should only be disconcerting to those who wish to assign pride of place to the conscious brain and give it qualities of uncaused autonomy that it does not have.

We should view ourselves as a stage play that is unfolding. The stage setting and the actors are like the conscious brain, the things that we see and are aware of, but the performance also requires the participation behind the scenes of many unseen groups like the lighting crew, the sound crew, and the stage hands, all obeying the instructions of the director and the playwright, the last two items in this metaphor representing the laws of science. In a successful production of a play, each component system behaves in concert with all the other systems of the production to create an integrated experience. It does not detract from our enjoyment that the actors are not truly ‘free’ to say and do what they wish, because the play is all of one piece and for them to act independently in that way would result in incoherence and confusion. During a good performance we forget that the actors are playing predetermined roles and view them as responding spontaneously to their surroundings, even though we know deep down that this is not the case.

We should enjoy our lives and ourselves in the same way.


In preparing and writing this series of posts on free will, in addition to the journal articles and news reports that were linked to, the following books were explicitly quoted or referred to.

  • Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin, 2002
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown, & Co., 1991
  • Rene Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, Translated by Desmond M. Clarke, Penguin Classics, 1998

The following books, while not directly used, provided me with general background information about how the brain works.

  • Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books, 1980
  • Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics, Oxford University Press, 1989
  • Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton, 1997
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995
  • Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon Books, 1994


  1. henry says

    Thanks for including the biblography.

    As a note and maybe a suggestion for other readers. I’ve copied and pasted each of the entries from this series into Word so I can read them in chronological order. The default settings for the blog seems to be more recent post first.

    I plan on printing this out to read carefully over the weekend. I suspect there is a lot more here than I got on the first time around.

  2. says


    Would you agree that it is insistence on clinging to the word free that makes the whole free will problem so tangled? It seems that there is really no problem with wills in general. In fact, it is perhaps best to say that I am a collection of wills and that collection is me. To suggest that they are completely unfettered by anything at all is just a blatant contradiction in terms.

    I would turn questions like “If there is no free will how do you ‘change’ or ‘develop’?” on their head. How can a free will change or develop? If it is truly free than it must be unhindered by time itself. It is the will that follows the laws it operates in that changes and develops. The word used in science for how something changes over time is ‘evolution’. A mind evolves because it is a physical things that behaves a certain way in certain conditions. If those laws are deterministic than so be it. It still evolves. And it still has wants and desires and whatever else we use to define the nature of a will.

    The existence of self-conscious wills that are subject to all of the laws of nature is marvelous enough for me. What more could I ask for?


  3. peter says

    I’ve loved reading this series. And like an earlier commenter, I think a hard copy and a coffee are the right recipe for an in-depth reread.

    As a professional stagehand I was looking for a nit to pick in that last paragraph, but I simply can’t find one: actors as brain modules, performing the scripts the programmer (playwright) has established, according to the interpretation of the director (network chemistry and connections). All happening behind the scenes, as other support staff embellishes or obscures the actions onstage.

    That’s surprisingly close to how it works in professional theatre.

  4. says


    I am glad that I did not mess up the metaphor!

    I may have been helped by the fact that in 2003, by pure happenstance, I was given the opportunity to act in a professional production of a play done by a regional theater. I actually got paid for it.

    I think I was competent but not very good, frankly, but one of the best parts of my experience was getting an inside look at how the real professionals put the whole thing together, working cooperatively to create a seamless and seemingly spontaneous performance, day after day.

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