Against Free Will

The belief in free will touches almost everything we care about. It underpins our sense of autonomy and responsibility, and is deeply ingrained in our cultural, legal and moral frameworks. It shapes our interactions and understanding of ourselves and others. We move through the world with a deeply intuitive sense that we are free in some fundamental way. Rarely, if ever, do we stop to question the plausibility of this conviction. Indeed, many find the notion that we do not possess free will deeply unsettling. If you count yourself among such individuals, it is up to you to determine whether it is wise to read on. Despite extensive philosophical debates over millennia, I aim to argue concisely in this essay that we do not possess free will. I contend that viewing ourselves absent free will, far from being a bleak reality, actually brings about significant and desirable implications.

The Commonsense Notion of Free Will

The term “free will” is used in various ways. In this context, I am specifically addressing the colloquial, commonsense notion of free will. What I have in mind is the following.

Free will is the idea that we are the ultimate sources of our actions, at least to some extent, and that we could have done otherwise.

We feel we are the authors of our thoughts and actions, and therefore the authors of our lives to a meaningful degree. Though we may acknowledge that there are natural constraints on our freedom, we nonetheless carve out domains of experience that are in our full control. The experience of making choices is one of autonomy, born of strong identification with our thoughts. I am here, thinking, deliberating, deciding — it feels as though I am fundamentally free to choose from the menu of possibilities on offer. It is worth dwelling on the “could have done otherwise” piece. This is at the heart of why free will seems so obvious. After all, it seems, though I chose to study philosophy in college, I could have majored in cognitive science. I ordered tea at the cafe I am sitting in, but I could have ordered hot chocolate. When facing decisions, we experience them as forks in the road, where each potential path is metaphysically available to us.

Consider the hypothetical case of Jake, a San Francisco-based recent graduate deciding between two job offers in the tech sector. The first job pays generously and is an ideal fit but requires moving to New York. The second job is local but does not pay as well and offers little room for future promotion. Jake agonizes over this decision for weeks, creating pros and cons lists, changing his mind repeatedly, and driving his partner Emily crazy. Though Emily thinks he should take the San Francisco job, Jake eventually decides to accept the New York position. This case seemingly provides a clear example of free will. Surely, Jake was at least somewhat free to decide which job to take. He took his time, changed his mind, and ultimately decided against his partner’s wishes. He chose the New York job, but we think he could have chosen the San Francisco job. The Jake example draws out just how compelling and seemingly straightforward the idea of free will is. But does this apparent freedom survive closer examination?

The Case of Charles Whitman

The tragic events involving Charles Whitman, as recounted in Sam Harris’s book Free Will, provide a compelling case study for the discussion of free will. Around midnight on Aug. 1, 1966, Whitman drove to his mother’s residence and stabbed her to death. He drove back home and murdered his wife by stabbing her in the chest repeatedly, and later climbed a tower at the University of Texas and began gunning down students indiscriminately. Over the course of 96 minutes, he killed 14 people and wounded 31 before being shot and killed by the police. Whitman left behind a suicide note in which he described experiencing overwhelming violent impulses and headaches, and requested that an autopsy be conducted on his brain. An autopsy later revealed a massive tumor pressing on his amygdala, a region of the brain crucial for emotion and behavioral control. The size and location of the tumor goes a long way towards explaining Whitman’s horrific behavior on that day.[i]

Take a moment to reflect on your emotional reactions to this case. What, if anything, changed when you learned of the tumor? Many of us initially experience strong feelings of moral indignation towards him, only to have them significantly lessened. The tumor reveals, in an unusually clear way, that Whitman was a victim of his biology. It provides a direct link between the state of his brain and his behavior. Ultimately, it suggests that Charles Whitman was not really free to behave otherwise. We can intuit that if we had an identical tumor pressing on our amygdalae, we would likely behave in similar ways. The Whitman case is instructive in highlighting the mechanics of our free will conviction.

The process of choosing is not something we do. It is something we witness.

Freedom, ‘Shmeedom’

At first glance, it may seem like Whitman presents a special case. At bottom, however, what sets Whitman apart is nothing more than the fact that the biology involved is especially salient. Recall the Jake example. The only relevant difference between Whitman and Jake is that the full explanation for Jake’s behavior is hidden from view. A full account would reveal a host of factors such as his fond memories of a trip he took to New York when he was a boy, hard-wired personality traits, familial values, genetics, and even the food he ate that day.[1] Whitman was no freer to resist his violent impulses than Jake is to decline that job. If we rewound the universe back to the moment Jake makes his decision, he would choose the New York job a million times in a row. The feeling that he is ultimately free to choose either option, compelling as it may be, is just that — a feeling, with no meaningful metaphysical implications. In other words, the deliberation process is not something he is doing, it is something he is witnessing.

Our thoughts, feelings and actions are direct products of our brains. The state of our brain, in turn, is a direct product of a complex interaction between our genetic makeup and our environment.[2] You didn’t choose your genetics, you didn’t choose your parents, you didn’t choose the environment you grew up in, and so on. As the conscious witness of your experience, you don’t know what you are going to think next. Your thoughts emerge from the depths of your subconscious, making themselves known as you think them. You cannot think what you will think before you think it. You are precisely who you are at any given moment as a result of a million factors, and you could not be otherwise. Our scientific understanding of the world — and its fundamentally causal nature — leaves no room for freedom of the will. There is simply nowhere to stand outside of this causal matrix. Ignorance of the full causal picture lends no credence to the belief in free will.

It may be tempting to conclude that although we do not have control over my genetics, family of origin, environment, etc., we nonetheless have the freedom to choose what to do with the hand we have been dealt. I may have experienced trauma as a child, but I can choose to overcome it as an adult. I may have a learning disability, but I can choose to work hard and compensate for it. This move, however, yields no more freedom. Just as I do not have control over what happened to me as a child, I do not have control over how I later deal with it. My capacity to overcome trauma as an adult is driven by countless factors outside of my control. The thing to recognize is that even traits such as resilience and conscientiousness ultimately come down to luck of the draw. Some people are taller; some are shorter. Some people are more resilient and others less so. If you fully traded places with another person, including their physical makeup and prior experiences, you would be that person and behave in identical ways. Whatever we might choose to attribute as the source of a person’s admirable qualities will inevitably be facets of those very qualities.

You are precisely who you are at any given moment as a result of a million factors; you could not be otherwise.

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, this is depressing. If there is no free will, why do anything? Why get out of bed in the morning?”

This is a common response to the proposition that we lack free will. The thought is: If I am merely a cog in the machine, then why even bother. Nothing I do will make a difference since it is all destined to unfold the way it will. This response, however, conflates determinism with fatalism — the belief that things are predetermined and therefore inevitable. Indeed, things are determined, in the sense that everything is part of a causal matrix. As discussed above, modern science leaves no room for anything outside of the web of causation.[3] This determinism, however, does not mean things are fated and therefore nothing we do matters. On the contrary, it is the causal nature of things that makes what we do or do not do all the more important. Put differently, to say that you could not do otherwise is not to say that what you do does not matter. Jake could not have ultimately chosen the San Francisco job, but the fact that he chose New York will completely change his life. We must make many decisions daily — the outcomes of which structure our lives — but we do not need to labor under the illusion that we are the authors of these decisions.

Things are not as bleak in the no-free-will camp as they may appear. The truth is, letting go of free will can be immensely liberating. We can still pursue our passions, love our loved ones (more on this below) and live our lives to the fullest. Negative emotions such as shame and blame lose their juice. On the whole, I believe, laying free will to rest leaves us much better off. It necessitates a challenging, yet rewarding, radical rethinking of our role as agents in the world and our attitude towards others. While facing this truth may initially elicit uncomfortable feelings of fear and nihilism, the territory on the other side is sweet. The freed-up energy previously consumed by our neurotic, futile attempts to maintain control of our lives can now be funneled towards projects, activities and people we love. We can enjoy life without holding on so tight. What you lose is the false notion that you were in the driver’s seat. But how much fun was this feeling in the first place?

An analogy I sometimes use is that of being behind the wheel of a car driving down the freeway. Imagine our driver, let us call her Joan, decides (perhaps foolishly) to let go of the steering wheel for a few seconds. To her amazement, she discovers that the steering wheel is self-steering, and she does not need to be holding on. This discovery is initially quite jarring and frightening, and she freaks out while rechecking whether this is in fact the case. As she acclimates to this newly discovered reality, she releases her foot from the gas pedal, and lo and behold, the pedal was doing its own thing all along. Another bout of panic ensues, after which she reclines in her seat and enjoys the rest of her drive in her newly discovered self-driving car. Her newfound attention allows her to take in the scenery more fully, and she appreciates the drive in new ways. In the end, far from being dismayed, she delights in the fact that she can now relax while still making her way to her destination. This roughly captures the transition to life beyond the illusion of free will.

Laying free will to rest leaves us much better off. It necessitates a challenging, yet rewarding, radical rethinking of our role as agents in the world and our attitude towards others.

The Asymmetry of Love and Hate

 Assuming that you are still with me at this point, I have some more good news. Happily, relinquishing belief in free will comes with positive implications for our relationships to others. There is an interesting asymmetry between the feelings of love and hate, one which fortunately leaves love untouched while rendering hate significantly weakened. Hating someone depends on the assumption that the person could have done otherwise. It is for this reason that hate is generally reserved for other human beings, with their purported capacity for free will.[4]

In a New Yorker article on the topic of vengeance,[5] Jared Diamond recounts how his father-in-law, Jozef Nabel, was utterly consumed by vengeance following the Holocaust. Jozef had survived the concentration camps only to later learn that his parents, his sister and his niece had been murdered. He somehow managed to locate the man responsible for the killing of his family and found himself face-to-face with him, gun loaded. Jozef resisted the intense desire to avenge his family’s death by killing the man, instead choosing to turn him over to the police. The man was released a year later. On Diamond’s telling, Jozef was tormented by regret and guilt for the remaining 60 years of his life. In his discussion of this case, Sam Harris invites us to consider how Jozef’s reaction would have differed had his family been mauled by a wild bear. Surely, the grief would be equally devastating. The hate and vengefulness, however, along with the subsequent regret and guilt, would not take hold. He may well have desired to lock up the bear or even kill it in order to prevent further harm, but this would be devoid of hate. Deep hate is built upon the illusion of free will, whether we recognize it or not.

Love, on the other hand, does not depend on free will. When we love someone, we love them for who they are — for the ways they enrich our lives and for how we feel in their company. Whether or not they were free to fashion themselves into who they are is completely beside the point. It would be absurd to suggest that people are deserving of more love on the basis of their free will. We may love and admire particular qualities in someone, yet we need not pretend that this person could have turned out otherwise. Actually, our loved ones can shine with a more mysterious and fortuitous presence in the absence of free will, announcing themselves as the product of existence itself. In a nutshell, it is difficult to hate someone when faced with their lack of freedom, while we can intensely love others absent free will. This is a remarkable and beautiful natural asymmetry.

The felt sense that we have free will is as compelling as it is commonplace, and is among the most taken-for-granted human convictions. Letting go of cherished beliefs can be difficult, but we must endeavor to more fully align with the way things are if we are to live an examined life. May we find beauty and meaning on this journey.

[1] For a robust account of the biology behind decision making, see Robert Sapolsky’s recent book on the topic of free will, Determined (2023).

[2] I am using “environment” in its most broad context, referring to anything that is not biologically hardwired. This includes our past decisions and actions.

[3] There is extensive discussion about the role of randomness and quantum indeterminacy when it comes to free will. My contention is that this is a red-herring that yields no more freedom than a fully deterministic universe, but this is beyond the scope of this essay. See Free Will by Sam Harris for a more robust discussion of the matter.

[4] We may use the term “hate” to refer colloquially to bad weather or an unfortunate circumstance, but we do not mean this in the deep sense of the word.

[5] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/04/21/vengeance-is-ours

[i]

3 Responses

  1. A lot of good points in here.

    I first questioned free will in 2013, and it’s been an interesting journey. I don’t believe we have an iota of free will, but my speech and behaviour is often driven by the deluded belief that people should know better. It takes ongoing effort to remind myself that free will does not exist. But when I do remember it, I almost always feel relieved.

    I especially like the author’s statement about the asymmetry between love and hate. It reminds me of my love for my dog: I loved her without ever thinking about her free will, and I did not hate her faults because it was obvious that they were outside of her control. If anything, intuiting her lack of freedom gave me compassion for aspects of her personality which might otherwise have aggravated me.

  2. To me Hashem made a drastic error in the very beginning with Adam and Eve. If in fact Hashem gave us “Free Will” it is assumed that “He” knows in advance that which will happen before it happens. That being the case he knew we’d mess up so getting angry and banning us for eternity from Eden was totally wrong. Going back to the beginning and doing it over but instead of “Free” will we have Hashem’s will – in this way we cannot mess up.

  3. Last time I looked, science had not falsified the free-will hypothesis even once, let alone in the kind of replicable experiment that is the hallmark of the scientific method.
    For a fuller account of the issues, based on Jewish perspectives (from the Torah text to Victor Frankl and Jonathan Sacks) and on recent experiments in neuroscience (from Benjamin Libet to Aaron Schurger), interested parties can begin here: https://www.judaismandscience.com/judaism-neuroscience-and-the-free-will-hypothesis/

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