Free will

by Marcus Loane


The neural circuitry in your brain obeys the laws of physics the same as everything else in the universe. Damage to specific parts of the brain can lead to very specific deficits, for example the inability to recognise faces. I have heard a neuroscientist quip, "If it's not in the brain it isn't anywhere." They mean that if circuitry for a brain function is removed, the function disappears as well*. Everything that is being discovered about brain processing suggests, while being very complex, it is entirely natural. You could in principle trace the chain of causes and effects from an environmental stimulus to your behaviour. The light coming off your computer screen hits your retina, which fires signals down your optic nerve which activates myriad circuitry around your brain which may eventually activate speech producing areas which activate your vocal chords making you exclaim "what rubbish" for example. The entire chain can be seen as physical links of cause and effect. That may present a problem for the folk understanding of free will. Even if there is a random element as a factor in our behaviour it is still not what most of us regard as free will.


If free will were an illusion, how would you know? You could have no choice to not feel that you possess free will. Your lack of free will could compel you to feel that you had free will. Therefore your feeling of having free will is consistent both with the idea that you do have free will and the idea that you do not have free will. It is not reasonable to claim you are certain you have free will just because you feel like you have free will. Intuition is often wrong. Intuition is perhaps even wrong most of the time.

Decisions, decisions

When you make a decision, think of all the inputs or factors that influence the outcome of your choice. What you choose depends on events external to you. Your decision depends on what you have learned in the past, that is, it depends on all the environmental stimuli you have been exposed to since birth. Everything that affects the decision is ultimately external to you. Perhaps you have a preference. How did you get that preference? As a result of experiences, environmental stimuli your brain was subjected to in the past. You may have some innate traits due to the brain your DNA built at birth, which have an effect on your decision but you did not choose your DNA. There is your brain built by DNA and then modified by all the events it has been exposed to since birth. From that is derived the output, the decision or choice. In what sense did you make it? Your brain weighed up the pros and cons based on its memories of relevant experiences and knowledge and out popped the decision. All that difficult deliberation was your brain trying out possible futures by triggering the appropriate neural circuits and retrieving memories to eventually produce an output. A choice is better regarded as an output, a result of the genes that built your brain and the experiences to which you have been subjected. What else can there possibly be that would affect or effect the result?

Actually there may be another factor and it is randomness. A decision depends on DNA + experiences + possible random elements. That is entirely consistent with a scientific view of brain processes but it is not the common view of what free will is. The common view is that there is some ethereal Self that pulls the strings in the physical world, and explaining exactly how, is taboo.

Scottish philosopher David Hume observed "constant conjunction between our voluntary decisions and other events and that these patterns provide adequate clues for making reasonable or probable guesses about the future course of human choices." We have made progress since Hume and now the findings from psychology, physiology, neurology, pharmacology, biochemistry, biophysics etc. suggest that human behaviour is completely determined.

Most of what the brain does is unconscious

The brain is performing many functions at the same time. It is looking after your body's vital processes, coordinating your muscle movements to shift you around and generally is very busy in the background. None of that requires free will. It is mechanical and automatic. You are only consciously aware of a minute part of its activities.

The illusion of free will keeps us active and motivated. Sometimes there is no time for thinking and we act without the sensation of free will. We reflexively duck if something looms overhead, we blink if something approaches the eye and we put out our hands if we fall forward. That is all automatic behaviour. In those situations there is no time for illusory free will to introduce a delay. Even learned behaviour can become automatic - we can drive a car almost unconsciously while being deep in thought. Conscious decisions to change gear (or use the shift stick if you are in the US) are rarely made - they just happen. Other examples of unconscious behaviour are tying shoelaces, brushing teeth and occasionally even forming a sentence.

Does a colony of ants have free will?

The brain is modular in structure. It consists of special purpose areas (though there is a lot of overlap). These modules can do their own job, communicating with each other but not aware of an overall plan. Similar setups are used in modern computer programming. Program modules called objects perform their own simple task and exchange messages with other objects. They do not have to know how the other objects work or even what they do. Coordinated behaviour can be produced by mindless interaction of simpler components. This is observed in some social insects. Ant colonies perform fantastic feats of what look like centrally coordinated team work. However each of them is just following very simple rules with no idea of any team project. In a sense the whole colony could be regarded as one organism with a (fairly simple) mind. The whole colony appears to have intentions and a will. Could our brains also have intentions and a will arising from the interactions of simpler components?

Free will of a god?

Imagine an infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely intelligent entity (a description given to some gods). It would be able to accurately see the potential outcomes of any of its decisions. It would be compelled to choose one option and only one option because it knows the other options would not lead to the desired outcome. It would foresee every event into eternity including all its own actions which are now completely fixed. It would have no freedom of will at all - it would be a robotic machine forever fixed along one path.

Personal responsibility

Some think that denying free will, has implications for law making and the idea of responsibility. A common misunderstanding is that if there is no free will then people's behaviour cannot be modified. That is incorrect. People's behaviour is modified by external experience regardless of free will. So education and fear of punishment for crimes will still work. Education and knowledge of punishments for crimes are some of the "inputs" into the brain that cause the "outputs" (people's decisions and behaviour). If free will does not exist it makes no difference! What can make a difference is if people misinterpret "no free will" and use it as an excuse for any behaviour or descend into fatalism. Again, this can occur whether there really is free will or not. We need the rules of behaviour, the laws and moral codes because these all affect people's behaviour. The belief or disbelief in free will and personal responsibility is just one other factor that affects people's behaviour. It will affect people's behaviour in the same way regardless of whether the beliefs are true or false. A belief in free will has the effect of making people freer in the sense that their brains will consider more options before acting. A belief is physically realised as some structure or wiring in a brain so it has causative power in the real world. The belief in free will is just another factor affecting the brain's outputs. It makes people (their brains) spend more thinking time before reaching decisions.

Social consequences

Now is it right to promote that people do not have free will? That is a difficult question. I think it is true that free will, as commonly understood, does not exist but the consequences of widespread acceptance of that may be damaging to society. It may be that it is better if the majority are encouraged to believe in free will. That will always be the case anyway since free will is such a strong intuition. One possible positive social consequence from a disbelief in free will would be increased compassion for "wrong doers". The notion of punishment as revenge becomes unsustainable. Revenge can be viewed as a biological instinct as "tit for tat" strategies are common in other species. The notion of punishment even being deserved, becomes dubious. Punishment becomes an unfortunate necessity for the greater good. Is it fair that some spend their life in jail because their genes+environment makes them act the way they do. No, nature is not fair, but we still need to lock them up to encourage good behaviour in others and to protect the rest of us. That, while imperfect, is better than the alternative of anarchy.

Enjoy the illusion

Like Last Thursdayism, free will is unfalsifiable. There is no test for it. We would be unable to discern any difference between having it or not having it. In fact there is a great problem in actually defining it. If you define it as the subjective sensation of being able to make decisions then we have it. If you define it as being able to freely make decisions then we do not have it, because our behaviour is constrained and influenced by our upbringing and education, and the DNA that built the brain which has been subjected to these experiences. If anyone claims they are completely free to decide or behave in any way, they are deluding themselves. If their claim were true then their behaviour would not be predictable yet everyone's behaviour can be predicted a little by those who know them. There are the constraints of our physical makeup which prevent us from performing certain acts (for example jumping 20 feet into the air or performing mathematical feats) by sheer force of will. All we have to realise is that these constraints go all the way in and include the physical structure of our brains. Note - this does not mean we cannot learn new skills and acquire new abilities. That is acheived by the brain being modified by the experiences it is exposed to.

The case for free will is that people intuitively think they have it, but I have explained that that could easily be a false belief. The case against free will is that we are understanding more and more about how the brain works and you could in principle trace the chain of causes and effects from an environmental stimulus to your behaviour.

Our understanding from science suggests that free will, as commonly understood, is an illusion. Free will is still a good doctrine to promote outside of scientific circles because it encourages better behaviour. However it cannot be used as some kind of refutation of scientific explanations of brain behaviour.


What I have been arguing against is the popular notion of free will that we are somehow immaterial and the body and brain is some kind of puppet that does whatever we want it to. That would be tantamount to claiming that the laws of physics are routinely broken inside human skulls, for example triggering a nerve impulse by a ghostly nudging of a few ions where they otherwise would not go. That would be a very extravagant claim and it offloads a lot of the work that we already know the brain can do, on to the immaterial entity.

Can we rescue free will for the sake of diplomacy? I think we can, by redefining it in a more materialistic manner.

Perhaps we could redefine free will to mean the physical processes which brains undergo when preparing to act. The brain does indeed "try out" different possible actions and their likely consequences internally (so does a chess playing computer for example), before selecting one action. That is the technical correlate of "making a decision". Deterministic systems can be flexible, adaptive and autonomous - that is what we are learning from computer science. We need to abandon the false intuition that computing machinery, neural or otherwise, is inflexible and stupid.

We should appreciate the ability of our brains to learn from experience and their ability to react to circumstances in ever more complex ways. We may be the only species that gets to try out in our heads, the possible results of various actions, allowing our brains to select wiser actions (“make a choice” in the vernacular).


It is highly unlikely we have free will if it is understood as a soul/ghost which can freely manipulate the body's actions.

We can have free will if it is understood as the brain trying out different plans before selecting an action.

There are positive benefits from acting as if we have free will (as traditionally understood).

Marcus Loane

The varieties of free will worth wanting - John Schmidt's review of Daniel Dennett's "Elbow Room".

*There are exceptions. The brain can occasionally adapt by using other areas to perform the lost function.