Humanist Perspectives: issue 185: Free Will: Fact of Fiction?

Free Will: Fact of Fiction?
by David Reeve

Free Will: Robot
Photo by Rick Young
Men believe themselves to have free will because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined. – Spinoza

ost people assume they have free will. They assume they are rational, autonomous beings with the ability to make real choices. For humanists, free will is doubly important. It is the foundation of ethical behaviour. Making informed choices that result in better lives is what humanists are about. Questioning free will entails questioning the entire humanist ethos. This is not something to be taken lightly.

But what if free will does not exist? Does it not behoove us to examine this possibility? After all, the whole humanist enterprise hinges on free will. It would be a terrible irony if humanists suffered from an illusion about free will, while at the same time condemning the illusion of the supernatural. This article takes a look at various problems with the concept of free will.

The Ability to Know Consequences Enables Us to Have Free Will

Because we are intelligent enough to foresee the consequences of our actions we have free will. Kant and Hegel both thought that our mental abilities, particularly our ability to reason, gave us free will. We make choices based on our knowledge of the world, and thereby obtain the desired result.

But why do we desire what we desire? I would argue that we desire what we desire because of numerous factors that are not under our control. The genetics we were born with and the experiences we have had make us who we are. Nature and nurture are the real determinants of our desires, and hence of our decisions.

The Compatibilist Argument For Free Will

Compatibilists, of which Daniel Dennett is one of the most well known, recognize the problem physicality poses for free will. But they argue for a weaker kind of free will. They suggest the only free will that is important to us is the free will we think we have. For all intents and purposes, if we feel free, we are free, and we act accordingly.

In one way, this acknowledges reality. People ‘feel’ like they have free will and so they think they actually have it. Maybe this is good enough for most. But to me this is a bit of flim-flam. Sure we ‘feel’ free, but I want to know if we really are. Thinking or feeling I have free will, when I actually don’t, seems to me to be similar to believing in the supernatural. It may be comforting, but it is an illusory sort of comfort.

Quantum Mechanics And Free Will

There are two interpretations of Quantum Mechanics (QM) which superficially support free will. The first suggests that human consciousness has supernatural powers. This interpretation maintains that the universe only potentially exists until human consciousness makes it become an actual universe. But whose consciousness does the actualizing? Or maybe all human consciousness combines to do it? I leave the elucidation of this view to others since it seems very far-fetched. And I think the supernatural aspect of this view will make it unappealing to most humanists.

The second interpretation of QM that possibly supports free will suggests real randomness exists in the universe. Most orthodox interpretations of QM favour randomness. When quantum entities such as electrons or photons are measured they take on random values. The conventional explanation is that they behave without any cause. But there are problems with this idea. For instance, there may be unknown causes that actually determine the behaviour of the electron or photon. Another problem concerns the results when a large number of photons are measured. While each individual electron or photon behaves randomly, as a group they exhibit stable behaviour. In fact, groups are extremely stable. So now the question becomes whether or not truly random events – events with no cause – can produce stable behaviour? Physicists are undecided on this point and so we must accept the fact that randomness might exist.

At this point some of you may be thinking that microscopic events do not affect us. And there is something called ‘The law of Large Numbers’ which similarly implies that microscopic randomness can be isolated from the macro world in which we live. This law suggests that electrons and photons may act randomly, but since they are small and operate in large numbers they effectively balance out to zero. Hence, so the thinking goes, they do not effect us. But this is not true. One single photon has been shown to affect macroscopic objects such as measuring devices. The experimenters using the measuring devices, and the papers the experimenters write, and the readers of those papers, are all affected by that single photon. True randomness at the microscopic level, if it exists, affects everything.

But does randomness, assuming it exists, allow us the freedom to have free will? I would say no. Randomness destroys coherent interaction between us and our environment. No matter how much knowledge we possess, if the world is random we can never count on our actions producing the desired results. When we interact with random events beyond our control, we are no more ‘free’ than when our behaviour is determined by lawful events beyond our control.

The Buddhist/Monist Argument Against Free Will

Buddhism is a way of looking at the world. It includes an appreciation of our place in the universe. One of the tenets of Buddhism is that separateness is an illusion. Nothing is separate. The entire universe is a unified totality; it is a completely integrated whole in which every element is affected by every other element.

Monism is a view of the universe whereby everything reduces to one type of matter/energy – one sort of fundamental ‘stuff’. Monism implies we are physical beings in a physical universe. There is no supernatural. There is no non-physical ‘essence’; nothing like ‘spirit’ or ‘souls’. Consciousness is just the neural activity of our brains. We are as much a part of nature as any atom or molecule.

But in order to have free will we must have freedom from physical necessity. We need to overcome the shackles of being physical in a physical world. We have to be supernatural in order to be unfettered by the constraints of the natural world. Free will requires some sort of dualist view of reality whereby we can operate independently from the physical world in which we are immersed.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, who was responsible for the monster he created, we are only responsible for ourselves if we create ourselves. Creating ourselves before we exist is problematic.

The trouble with dualism is the nature of the interaction between the two parts – between the physical world, and the other part of the duality that is presumably different from the physical world. Descartes thought the pineal gland in our brain connected the physical world with a non-physical world. But how would this interaction work? Furthermore, for free will to exist, this interaction must be only one-way. Our will, to be free, must act without being acted upon. Physics precludes this sort of interaction, and as far as I know there is no other evidence to support this idea.

If we are acted upon by the world, our choices are no longer ours. Instead, our actions become something we do in concert with our environment. We thereby lose the autonomy I that would argue is necessary to really be free. We are forced to share responsibility for what we do with the world in which we live.

If we accept that we are physical beings, we should also accept the Buddhist suggestion that we are totally immersed in the universe that created us. This implies that all of our behaviour, and even our very thoughts, are the result of the universe being the way it is.

The Frankenstein Argument Against Free Will

We must create ourselves if we are to be responsible for who we are. Like Dr. Frankenstein, who was responsible for the monster he created, we are only responsible for ourselves if we create ourselves. Creating ourselves before we exist is problematic.

In physics, the importance of initial conditions over time is paramount. Minute differences in initial conditions lead to dramatically different outcomes. The same holds true for humans. All that we do depends to a large extent on who we are at birth. Assuming we are merely physical beings, if we do not control how we start off – if we do not create ourselves – then we are not responsible for our outcomes.

From Whence Come Our Thoughts?

As a humanist I can safely say there is no spiritual ‘me’. I have no soul. What I am is my physical body. I am a biological robot. Or as Arthur Guyton so warmly puts it on page two of his Textbook Of Medical Physiology, 6th.Ed., “the human being is actually an automaton, and the fact that we are sensing, feeling and knowledgeable beings is part of this automatic sequence of life”.

My physical body has consciousness. This consciousness makes me feel I am separate from the world around me. But, as already noted, I am not separate from the world around me. Every atom of which I am made follows the laws of physics completely. The thoughts and feelings that arise out of these atoms also follow the laws of physics.

Yet, despite this, I feel like I create my own thoughts. They come from within, and they reflect the essence of who I am. But are these thoughts generated consciously? Or are they merely the environment operating on me through the intermediary of my subconscious?

[My thoughts] come from within, and they reflect the essence of who I am. But are these thoughts generated consciously? Or are they merely the environment operating on me through the intermediary of my subconscious?

When I have a thought, I am aware of having that thought. But I am not aware of all the little steps my mind took to produce it. The flow of my thoughts seems to be under my control. However, if I look at it closely I realize that one thought follows on another and I am actually not controlling them. I do not know what I will think next. Although I feel that somehow ‘I’ have the thoughts, I do not know how I have them. My subconscious comes up with thoughts, and they fit in with the thinking patterns I am used to. But when I examine how I think, I draw a blank. The process is subconscious – I really do not know what is going on. Neuroscientists have found that our brains make decisions roughly half a second before we are conscious of the decision.

Since my thoughts are not under my conscious control, my decisions based on these thoughts likewise cannot be under my control. I do not know what I will decide next.

Nevertheless, for the most part I am pleased with what I think, decide, and do. The process seems natural and comfortable. I feel the decisions are mine, and generally I am happy with their consequences.

We Need To Feel Free Because We Are Insignificant

There are roughly 100 billion stars in the average galaxy. And there are roughly 100 billion galaxies in the universe. When you look up at the night sky filled with stars, you see only a tiny fraction of what is out there. This may make you feel insignificant. It should. The earth we live on is much, much smaller than any of those points of lights, and we humans are much smaller still. This truth is painful. Perhaps we need to feel free to help us feel significant? Perhaps we need to feel significant in order to function?

What If We Give Up The Belief In Free Will?

Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein. These names bring to mind mass killings and unspeakable tortures. How should people like them be treated? If free will is an illusion then they are not responsible for their actions.

Mainstream psychology views behaviour as the result of environmental and genetic factors. Humans behave the way we do because of the genes we inherit, and because of the environment in which we exist. Since we do not control either the genes we inherit or the environment we live in, we are not the real authors of our behaviour.

In this view the mass murderer becomes more of a tragic character – both a monster and a victim. The blame transfers to his genetics and to his environment. The universe produces sociopaths. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein had to do what they did because of the universe being the way it is. All criminals become victims of the universe.

This is the vexing thing about no free will. It allows bad behaviour to be justified by circumstances. The legal system already acknowledges this to a certain extent. Every day lawyers cite circumstances that justify their clients’ actions. The notorious “Twinkie Defense” is a perfect example – Dan White’s actions were blamed on depression as evidenced by his eating Twinkies.

Even though nobody has free will, society has to prevent its members from harming one another. The easiest way to do this is by incarceration, but it can also be accomplished either by behaviour modification or by changing the conditions that lead to the offensive behaviour. The goal is to extinguish antisocial behaviour. If bad behaviour is due to circumstances, maybe we can also prevent the same behaviour by understanding how circumstances cause it? Removing the issue of willfulness should add clarity to the treatment of criminals.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “’Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I imagine some readers are thinking that all hell will break loose if everyone blames their behaviour on their circumstances. What will happen if we no longer believe we have free will? Psychological research is currently being undertaken to study this. There is some evidence that lying and cheating increases, but no effect on serious crime has been observed. Research also shows that the belief in free will is very persistent. People believe in free will even when they are shown strong evidence undermining it. We may, in fact, be hardwired to believe in free will.


As we have seen, there are problems with the idea of free will. With each passing day, psychology and neuroscience are making it harder to view ourselves as independent and autonomous beings. But just as bad circumstances produce bad behaviour, good circumstances must produce good behaviour. The universe has produced the level of good behaviour we currently enjoy. Even without free will, people are generally nice. Hopefully, this will not change.

(Readers are urged to look up the fascinating psychological research on free will. They might also like to read the book by Sam Harris titled Free Will which covers much of the same ground as this article.)

David Reeve has spent most of his life pondering whether or not we have free will. His University of Toronto undergrad degree was in psychology and philosophy, including courses on the mind/body problem and metaphysics. More recently his focus has been on quantum mechanical phenomena. He was born in Toronto and has lived here most of his life. He worked as an RN in psychiatry. Retirement now finds him on his little east-coast shrimp boat staring at the water, having a cup of tea, and reading.

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