Free Will

February 24, 2019

Far from being essential to our humanity, the belief in free will holds us back from being more humane and pragmatic.

Free Will Is Magic

What does it really mean to say that I have free will? Every beat of my heart, movement of a muscle, and thought in my head is at the very least a physical process, carried out by cells interacting via molecules and governed by the immutable laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. While we may not yet understand every mechanism of the brain, as far as we can tell there’s nothing but atoms in there, and every system of atoms we’ve ever come across can be entirely explained by the physical laws of cause and effect where every cause is the predetermined effect of some earlier cause. So to say that I have free will is to say that some power, my “will”, can create physical effects that are not the result of prior physical causes. That sounds a lot like magic. And if physics, biology, and chemistry are sufficient to explain my actions, why bring magic into the picture?

Of course, we know why: free will is flattering. It lets us take credit for the good in us. I’d been meaning to write this piece since finishing the book on which it’s based back in August. For six months I didn’t, and this morning, I am doing so. Cause-and-effect would say that the circumstances in the world and my brain were not conducive to me writing until today. Free will offers a more appealing explanation: that I am a better, stronger-willed person today than I was in the past. Free will even lets us take credit for the absence of evil in ourselves. If I could at any point simply choose to begin murdering people, then I can think of myself as a kind of saint for continually choosing otherwise. Furthermore, the notion of free will provides moral cover for our desire to inflict suffering upon those whose actions we don’t like. After all, if they could have chosen otherwise, then they’re really inflicting that suffering on themselves, right? As Harris puts it:

Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent.

Consider as well how easily our intuitions about free will are confused. When we hear, as in this Radiolab episode on “Blame”, about a man who develops a sudden and uncontrollable appetite for child pornography, we immediately deem him a moral monster worthy of punishment. When we then learn that his change in behavior coincides with a serious brain injury, our intuitions change, and we begin to see him as a victim of that injury. In that case, the judge reduced his sentence, literally deeming him less deserving of puishment because his behavior was caused by a physical condition in his brain.

A World Without Free Will

What, then, should we as a society make of that assertion that all behavior is the result of physical conditions in the brain? Should we open up the prisons and abolish the courts? Of course not. As the quotation above suggests, the focus of the justice system should simply shift away from punishment and toward deterrence, rehabilitation, and, when necessary, containment. It may feel relieving to kick a machine when it doesn’t do what we want, but that obviously leaves both the machine and ourselves worse off1. Instead of punishing antisocial behavior in ways that only make it worse, we can work to eliminate the conditions that give rise to it (everything from lead paint to economic desperation), heal those who engage in it, and when all else fails, humanely confine those we can’t yet help so that they aren’t a danger to others. A justice system absent the concept of free will would actually be more effective, not less so, while avoiding the senseless torture we currently enact out of the belief that it’s what some people deserve.

A Life Without Free Will

And how should we respond as individuals to the recognition that we are “merely” extraordinary machines?2 In a way curiously similar to the justice system above, I find myself focusing less on punishment for my flaws (in the form of guilt), and more on changing the circumstances that give rise to them. Instead of blaming myself when I can’t resist the cookies I see in the cupboard, I put them in the guest room upstairs so I’m less likely to encounter them. I cannot understate how liberating this actually is. According to the free will story, if your will isn’t strong enough to manifest the effects you want to see in your behavior, there’s nothing you can do but keep trying, over and over in the same way, until it works. When you instead see yourself as a system governed by causes and effects in the physical world, each of those is an opportunity to change something.

How about Harris’s suggestion that, absent free will, I can no longer say I deserve whatever success I’ve achieved? Frankly, it seems clear to me that success and failure are never fully in one’s control. Luck plays a big part, and to the extent that success results from things we traditionally credit like character and hard work, one must ask where one’s character and work ethic come from. It can only be nature (genetics) or nurture (upbringing), neither of which I can claim credit for. I’m not even sure what would it would mean to “deserve” success? That I can enjoy what I have with no obligation to help those with less, who likewise deserve their fate? Few moral philosophies would consider that a tenable position.


I’ll conclude with a quote from a recent episode of Radiolab which got me thinking about this subject again. (Further evidence that it wasn’t my will but circumstance that led me to finally write about it.) The episode, “Loops”, has a segment about transient global amnesia, a condition where you lose the ability to form new memories for about 24 hours. Observing people in this state who can’t remember what they just said a few minutes ago, they tend to have identical conversations over and over, as if the brain is a computer which, given the same inputs, will produce the same outputs. Thanks to memory, we never truly get the same input: if you tell me the same joke a second time, I’ll remember the first time and the input is now that you’re repeating yourself, to which I’ll naturally respond differently. But without memory, we respond like clockwork. The doctor calls it “creepy”, even:

Another thing that everybody does is that…everybody becomes a broken record, right down to the phrasing of the sentences… It makes the brain seem a little bit more like a machine. You give the machine the exact same set of inputs—every 90 seconds give it the same doctor, the same hospital room, the same beeping machines—and see if the output ever varies. And, it doesn’t. It almost seems like the patient has no free will.

  1. Except for maybe vending machines. 

  2. Fiona Apple’s song by this name is, well, extraordinary.