The coming death of the idea of free will

The idea of human beings having free will is so powerful that it would seem to be impossible to dislodge. Having free will seems to be so essential to the way that we view ourselves that denying its existence seems like denying our very humanity, transforming ourselves into mindless automatons, and thus we are loathe to relinquish it. Isaac Beshevis Singer captured this struggle well when he said, “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”

Oddly enough, I gave up the idea of free will quite easily, soon after I gave up the idea of god, and for a similar reason. Like some liberal Christians, especially those with some scientific training, I had struggled with the question of how a god could actually intervene in the world because intervention would require the ability for god to move things, and I could not see how a non-material entity could exert a force on material objects without violating the laws of physics. To try to get around this problem, I arrived at the position that, for some ineffable reason, god had decided that he would achieve his goals only by influencing people through their minds to do his will and alter the course of events, rather than altering them directly. Humans were the agents of god’s actions in the world and the only way they were manifested. So the perpetual struggle was with god trying to make us be good by using our minds (of which conscience was a part) to compete with our baser natures.

This kind of rationalization worked as long as I shared with most people the idea that while the brain is a material object made up of neurons and other physical stuff, there is an ‘I’ (which religious people might identify with the soul) that transcends the material, that exists apart from it and yet is able to influence it. It is this ‘I’ that has free will and interacts with god. Like most people, I simply took this as a given, as self-evidently true, and hence did not examine it too closely.

But that belief soon fell apart when I started studying the nature of the mind and brain and thinking more carefully about how god could influence my thoughts. Even if god could communicate with the mind, how could this immaterial ‘I’ influence the material brain? It quickly became clear that what I thought of as the mind had to be entirely a product of the workings of the brain. That meant that god could only influence my thoughts by acting on the neurons on my brain and this brought me back full circle to the same problem as before, since the problem of god nudging neurons seemed no different to god acting on any other material objects.

Hence if everything is the product of natural laws working on material objects, then that must apply to the brain too. The brain is a material object functioning according to natural laws and hence our minds and our sense of free will are products of that material brain. What else could it be?

The interesting thing about my assertion about the absence of free will is that, unlike the absence of god, we may in the near future be able to actually get convincing evidence in support of it. In my series of posts on free will that I wrote two years ago, I discussed fMRI experiments in which experimenters could, by looking at the brain images of people in the machines, predict what the test subjects would do a few seconds in advance of when the subjects themselves became aware of making the decision to act, thus implying that they did not have free will as it is commonly thought.

The criticisms of this conclusion were that the accuracy of the predictions were only of the order of 60% or so and that the tasks involved (pressing a button with either the right or left hand) were highly rudimentary and did not correspond to real world situations involving complex decision making. These criticisms are valid. But advances in technology will likely overcome these objections. It is only a matter of time before fMRI machines become compact and portable so that people can wear it on their heads like a football helmet and walk around doing everyday tasks. It is also the case that they will become more sensitive, able to be more fine-grained in their mapping of brain activity and more sensitive to subtle changes.

When you couple these hardware improvement to advances in brain mapping algorithms that will be able to better correlate changes in brain patterns with actions, it becomes just a matter of time before we have people walking around with these helmets and an experimenter observing the output in a remote location will be able to predict with great accuracy what the person is going to do (pick up a pencil, make a cup of coffee, read a newspaper, etc.) before that person is aware that they had decided to do that.

When you have a situation in which someone else can predict with great accuracy what you are going to do before you yourself are aware of wanting to do so, I think it becomes pretty clear that free will as we now understand it, in which a conscious decision precedes an act, does not exist.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    This is pretty much in line with my own thinking. For a materialist/naturalist, free will is simply the last residue of the dualism they think they have discarded.

  2. says

    I first rejected the idea of free will when I started working on burglar alarm control systems in high school (summer job) – there’s a monitoring loop that runs constantly and feeds back to result in a state-change. One day I said “the alarm decided to go off” and I suddenly realized that our sense of choice is a product of our self-awareness, not the other way around. The alarm bell is not the “decision” in the system – it’s an output of the system.

    Now I just act as though I am a meat robot that is programmed to think it has free will. It’s a useful concept, though people’s belief in free will has some serious implications for how criminal justice works. There are a few such problems that will need to be adjusted as humans abandon that particular illusion.

  3. Dunc says

    Like God and the Cartesian Homunculus, “free will” is just an attempt to dodge the question. Even if we ignore the physical question of how free will could exist within a material brain entirely based on physical laws, the question remains: how does this putative “will” actually make decisions? The only possible answer is that it would consider the available information and compare it to past experience – so what exactly is “free” about that? It’s simply a behavioural machine – more complex than a pigeon in a Skinner box, certainly, and capable of a significant degree of reflexive self-modification (although again, only through prior training), but not really “free” in any meaningful sense. Even if we allow a degree of randomness in the output, that still doesn’t equate to meaningful choice.

    I don’t think you need to invoke physical determinism to torpedo the concept of free will.

  4. unbound says

    While free will in the strict sense is likely not true, it will remain a “close enough” concept for the far foreseeable future.

    To be honest, the fMRI experiment is actually unimpressive when you think about it. Even if it predicted the person’s response a few seconds ahead of time, 100% of the time, it is still only measuring at a point that is very far along in the process (i.e. you are measuring at a point in time that is after the vast majority of information gathering, information processing, information storage, prior information analytics, etc has already taken place).

    It is tantamount to the air bag sensors responding to an impact, which happens well before the human brain understands what is going on. That air bag sensor seeing the issue before you understand that the issue occurred says nothing about the circumstances leading up to the impact (which are long and very convoluted).

    Like weather predictions, I think we will know deep down inside that we don’t really have free will, but the complexities of understanding and measuring everything that goes into decision making will end up keeping free will alive.

  5. stephenyutzy says

    Thanks Mano, I always enjoy your thought-provoking discussions.

    I think that this discussion, as with most, comes down to understanding what the question actually means. If the question is “do humans have free will?”, then the sub-question must be “well what do we actually mean by ‘free will’ to begin with?”.

    If free will means conscious decision making and it’s possible to predict with great accuracy what those decisions are before they become conscious thoughts, that’s certainly evidence against free will. I’d love to see one of those helmet-sized MRI machines (and not just because I’m an MRI physicist), because that could take the studies outside of contrived experiments and study actual complicated real-world situations (ex: dating).

    If free will extends into the unconscious then what it really means is that no two people respond the same way to the same stimulus. And in this case “same way” becomes something we need to define as well: is it the whole decision making process, or just the end result? In this case, fMRI experiments are measuring decisions long after they’re actually made, so there’s no evidence either way since the free will part has already occurred.

    Note that I’m not advocating for or against either position, nor am I stating that those are the only two options. Just trying to understand the question better.

  6. Scr... Archivist says

    I thought the term “free will” was about whether or not humans can choose salvation in the afterlife or are predestined to salvation (or damnation). Without an afterlife or any gods to do the salvaging that question is moot, of course, so why didn’t we create a new term for the more modern idea about how we make decisions?

    How do contemporary philosophers and neurologists make a distinction in the terminology between the old, Christian soul kind of free will and the new, mundane decision-making kind?

  7. Kevin K says

    Here we go again.

    You have to first define what is meant by “free will” in order to get anywhere.

    Free will was invented by the religious as a dodge. It was a way to explain why humans do not follow their gods’ clear directives on which direction to pray, where they may or may not wear hats, and what part of the bacon cheeseburger is considered acceptable to eat.

    If god does not want you to eat the bacon and you eat the bacon against a clear directive, you are exercising “free will”. Simple.

    Free will is a gods-given gift that allows you to sin. And for which — in the Christian and Muslim traditions — you will be punished eternally for in the after-death if you exercise it.

    It’s a silly concept. There’s no such thing as sin, because there are no gods and no clear directives about the status of the components of the bacon cheeseburger (or anything else). Nor a coherent after-death.

    For that reason, free will in the religious context does not exist. It’s incoherent on its face.

    Sadly, philosophers have expanded the definition of free will far beyond that limited religious definition to an overarching concept about making decisions willfully. And where there is a philosophical concept in one direction, there will always be a competing concept in exactly the opposite direction. Humans, philosophers argue, either have free will or act deterministically.

    That’s as silly an expanded concept as the original notion of free will.

    The problem with fMRI and other such studies is that it ignores the patently obvious. The deciding — however it is done — is still done within the context of a single human brain.

    The fact that we don’t understand yet the reporting mechanism between the unconscious or subconscious decision-making process the the reporting of those decisions to the conscious part of the brain is not sufficient justification to suppose that no decision-making is going on at all. And that by extension we are mere automatons who have no “real” choice as to whether we eat the bacon or not.

    The unconscious/subconscious mind is still your mind. It’s chugging along doing lots and lots of work — most of it you don’t “think” about. I don’t really “think” about where to place my fingers when I type, because my mind “knows”.

    Baseball and cricket players train their minds to make sub/unconscious decisions about whether to swing at the thrown ball without the need to check in with the consciousness. Because the reaction times needed to hit the ball effectively are too short to allow that check-in process. But it’s still the mind that is making that decision. And the checked swing in baseball is clear evidence that the mind’s decision can be changed even in mid-act at a split second. That is the philosopher’s definition of free will if ever there was one.

    You are displaying what I’ll call consciousness-ism. Which is the belief that only the conscious part of the mind “counts” when the decision-making process is considered.

    As if the rest of your brain isn’t really you.

    Nonsense. I’ll have none of it.

  8. Jared A says

    This is more or less the point, isn’t it? But I wouldn’t give philosophers so much blame. It seems few are particularly bothered by the ‘free will’ question anymore, and instead have to continually clear up the same point.

    I like to phrase it like this: What’s wrong with a plain old, unqualified “will”? Only someone trying (and failing) to solve some theological paradox would want to try to imply a will is completely unfettered or “free”.

    I think Doug Hofstadter puts it nicely when he explains that the conscious part of our brain is not the decision-making part, but instead it is the self-modelling part. Naturally it will be modelling the decision-making part, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. In the end it at the very least partially subordinate to other processes.

  9. steve84 says

    The idea of free will is little more than mental masturbation. It really doesn’t matter or mean anything

  10. Kevin K says

    Good point. The “free” part sneaks in because the philosophical concepts are extensions of the religious concept, I suspect.

  11. mnb0 says

    The dilemma Homunculus plus free will versus determinism plus no free will might be a false one. One problem is that free will isn’t properly defined, like KK wrote above. As a result nobody really knows what idea exactly is supposed to die.

  12. says

    As a result nobody really knows what idea exactly is supposed to die.

    Well, the “free will of the gaps” is getting mighty thin. Since it exists between determinism and randomness, and is – according to most of the compatibilists I’ve read – mostly an emergent property of the mind, or (if you put it less attractively) figment of the imagination.

  13. jamessweet says

    Yeah, this is on-point. A soul is a just a hand-wave, without explaining why a soul would have the necessary properties. And if the answer is “Magic!”, you might as well just say there is some physical matter than has the “magic”.

  14. jamessweet says

    I don’t think this actually gets you a “proof” of the non-existence of free will, as long as you posit another layer. Sure, the individual may not have been consciously aware of their decision yet, but I can always argue that the “ghost” made the decision, THEN it became detectable by MRI, and FINALLY the person was consciously aware of it.

    Not that I believe in free will as it is commonly understood by the layperson, i.e. libertarian free will. I believe in compatiblist free will, of course, but after the Free Will Wars on Jerry Coyne’s blog I eventually became convinced that it’s generally unhelpful to call that “free will”, since it just confuses the matter. Certainly the reality of compatibilist free will is what gives rise to the sensation of libertarian free will (which all of us experience; as Singer cheekily says, we have no choice in the matter). But that does not make them the same thing, no more so then it is valid to call a certain brain region a “hallucination” because it gives rise to a hallucination.

  15. baal says

    Excellent comment Kevin and probably did a better job than I would have.

    In ultra short form, ‘free will’ came up as a solution for theosophy. It’s used to mean different things to different people and you can better get through discussions if your thoughts aren’t derailed by this malformed concept.

    I fully agree that we aren’t just meat robots (though we do seem like it sometimes). We know what that looks like – ants. I think randomness and decision making (not necessarily conscious decision making , that seems to be falling to the fMRI studies) still allow us some agency and culpability.


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