The Illusion of Free Will

We like to think that we have something called “free will.” But do we? I don’t think the term can even be defined in a way that makes sense.

The subject came up in conversation today, so I figured I’d better lay out my thoughts in an orderly way. Not that I expect to change many minds. This is a subject that arouses deep feelings.

That’s an interesting fact in itself. I suspect that many people confuse free will with personal responsibility. The idea being, if you aren’t free to choose whether to do or not do certain things (perhaps praiseworthy things, perhaps despicable things), then there’s no point in holding you accountable. There is no way to exercise any moral judgment. Everyone gets to engage in any sort of naughty behavior that their impulses may suggest, because, “Hey, I couldn’t help it.”

Well, okay, you couldn’t help it. But we’re still going to lock you up for a while. First, so that maybe next time you’ll think twice before you give way to those impulses, and second, to keep you from hurting anyone. See, it’s still perfectly practical to set out and enforce a code of social behavior, even while understanding that the people who violate the code were bound to do so, that they could not have done otherwise.

I’m not sure why people think free agency is important. I offer the preceding simply as an informal observation. More formally, let’s see if we can figure out what this “free will” stuff would look like, if it existed.

Let’s use a simple situation. You go into a restaurant and are shown to a table. The waitress hands you a menu, and you begin scanning the menu. Isn’t it obvious that you’re free to order anything on the menu? Isn’t the existence of free will in that situation just totally obvious?

No, it’s not obvious at all. And I claim that a little honest introspection will reveal the utter hollowness of the concept.

What actually happens, as you’re scanning the menu? First, your brain is consulting your metabolism to determine your hunger level. You’ll probably also consult your memory to note and cross off of the list any foods that you know from past experience you don’t care for. And then your vanity may come into play. Do you need to lose five pounds? Then maybe the salad would be a better choice than the pizza. But you’re really hungry tonight, and a salad will hardly fill you up. Pizza, pizza! But … the doctor warned you about cholesterol. So consult the memory again: Have I been virtuous about eating a low-fat diet all week, or have I been cheating?

You look across the table at the person you’re dining with. What will she think if you order the pizza instead of the salad? How much do you care what she thinks? (That’s not a simple question at all. It may require several minutes of disorganized rumination.) What about the fish — that might be a good compromise. It’s low in fat, and a bit more substantial, so it will be filling. But the fish is expensive, and you’ve been trying to save a few bucks toward that new sailboat. Maybe the salad after all.

I trust nobody will have trouble identifying with this bit of internal narrative. The point is this: Within your brain, as you scan the menu, are a number of rather disparate drives: hunger, fear of death (if you eat too much cholesterol), the desire to save a few bucks toward that sailboat you’ve been dreaming of, social concerns about what your dinner companion may think, lingering resesntment against your boss (and since you were a kid, you’ve been overcoming resentments by stuffing yourself with food), desire to try a new kind of cuisine, and so on.

At any given time, some of these drives will be stronger than others. Hunger, fear, resentment, social shame, desire … around and around it goes. And whatever drive is the strongest, at that moment, wins.

You have absolutely no choice in the matter: Whatever drive is the strongest wins.

Some of those drives may be unconscious, and therefore entirely beyond your ability to manipulate them. But let’s suppose that some of them are conscious. Let’s suppose that you’re unreasonably terrified of having your dining habits criticized by your spouse. This fear has been making you so miserable that you’re seeing a therapist about it. You’re trying to get in control of that particular drive. So now your therapist is rattling around in your head too, as you gaze at the menu. The drive to overcome your fear of your spouse is simply another drive, just like the fear itself. Maybe your internalized therapist will win tonight, or maybe you won’t be able to muster up the courage because the fear of your spouse’s criticism is still stronger.

Either way, the stronger drive wins. Even if the stronger drive is specifically a drive to overcome and conquer some other drive, the rules of the game haven’t changed.

Ultimately, you have no control over this process. What would it mean if you could somehow exert “free will” so that the strongest drive, for once, didn’t win? It would mean only that you were, at that moment, under the sway of another drive (that internalized therapist, perhaps) that is strong enough to overcome the first drive.

You don’t get to choose what you want most. You want most whatever you want most. And you will always attempt to get whatever you want most. If you’re not trying to do that, it’s because really, deep down inside, you want something else more. Over time, different drives may recede or come to the fore. You may tire of behavior A, or a friend may describe behavior B in a way that makes it seem more desirable and less threatening. But that doesn’t mean you exercised “free will” in choosing behavior B for a change. All it means is that the balance of your internal drives changed.

If you manage to alter the balance of your internal drives, it’s only by using another drive that’s stronger than any of the others. The strongest drive is still winning. How could it ever be otherwise? And the roots of all of our drives are, if we’re honest enough to admit it, entirely unconscious and unknowable. Desire and fear happen to us. We do not choose them.

If you’re inclined to discount my description of the process because the example of a restaurant menu seems too trivial, replace it with a man contemplating whether to cheat on his wife by having sex with someone else. Exactly the same mental processes will be involved: How strongly attracted am I? How likely is it that I get caught? Do I care if I get caught? How will getting caught affect my marriage and my social reputation? How much trouble will it be to sneak around and keep doing it if I don’t get caught? And so on, and so on. In the end, the stronger drive, whatever it is, wins the intra-cranial arm-wrestling match.

From time to time, two drives may be evenly balanced. What happens, at that point, is called dithering. We flop back and forth, unable to choose between two courses of action. The dithering will continue until the brain roots around and comes up with another drive that’s strong enough to break the tie.

What we call “free will” is really no more than the observation that I don’t know what you’re going to do next. I may not even know what I’m going to do next. But that’s not free will — it’s just ignorance.

All of our drives are operating under their own steam. Nobody is in charge. The Buddhist view, which I find both persuasive and obscurely comforting, is that there’s nobody to be in charge. There is no “you” in your head choosing items from the menu. That idea of “you” is another illusion. The drives are just bouncing around, doing their thing. Nobody’s home.

But let’s imagine for a moment that there is such a thing as “you” living in your head, and that “you” have something called “free will.” Using free will, “free-will you” can intervene in the process I’ve been describing and affect its outcome. The question I would ask is, on what basis is “free-will you” acting? If “free-will you” has any sort of drives, then they’re all just part of the process, and the free will has disappeared from the equation. Either those drives will be strong enough to sway the outcome, or other drives will be stronger, and nothing will change. But if “free-will you” has no drives, then its free choice of actions can only be entirely random! That’s not free will, it’s rolling the dice.

Maybe people insist on the idea that they have free will because they fear that they’ll be diminished — robbed of dignity and worth, their lives robbed of meaning — if they’re no more than automatons.

I take some comfort, however, in the fact that Bach and Beethoven were no more than automatons either. I’d like to have a drive to be the best automaton that I can possibly be. I mean, consider the alternative.

Another factor in some people’s tenacious need to cling to the idea of “free will” is surely that it explains (or purports to explain) the problem of evil. This theological position, which was quite potent in the Middle Ages and is still hanging around muddling up people’s thinking, is that “God” gives us “free will” so that we can choose either good or evil. If in fact we don’t have free will, then — oops! — we’re not responsible for evil. “God” is. You can see how awkward that idea would be to a devout church-goer. No, better defend the spotless reputation of a nonexistent entity by propounding a meaningless concept. What a house of cards!

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12 Responses to The Illusion of Free Will

  1. Being an automaton sounds like a shallow existence to me. I’m going to go with the theory that life is rich with purpose and meaning, and that I get to live forever in paradise when I die. Feel free to call me a fool =)

    • midiguru says:

      But it’s self-evidently not a shallow existence, since it’s the existence you’re already leading, and you don’t experience it as shallow! Life is exactly as rich with purpose and meaning as you’re able to make it, and the drive to imbue life with purpose and meaning is both powerful and widely shared.

      The belief that there is a life beyond this one … yeah, I’d have to say that’s foolish. There’s no evidence whatever to support the idea, other than the babbling of a bunch of ignorant dead people. But go ahead, believe what you like. In fact, you don’t have any choice, because your drive to believe it is far more powerful than your drive to live your life along rational lines.

      I have compassion for the religious. They’re delusional, and they have no choice about it, none at all. Their brains lead them into all sorts of absurd behavior — sprinkling water on babies, to name just one example among thousands. Many of the absurd behaviors are a lot less pleasant than that one. But evolution dealt them a hand of cards that forces them to believe. It’s sad, but not surprising.

      • As I have said before, there is plenty of evidence to support the idea of life after death. The question is whether you choose to see it or not. Don’t take my word for it, though. Read “The Case for Christ” and decide for yourself.

      • midiguru says:

        Send me a copy and I’ll spend an hour or two ripping it to shreds for you — intellectually, and then literally. The online copy only has a few pages, but I can see from the opening that it’s a personal tale, not a scientific investigation of anything.

      • There’s plenty of people that have already ripped it to shreds “intellectually”. I don’t know about literally, though =)

        I just wanted to point to an example of what I consider to be a rational explanation of why people believe something you do not. Believing the New Testament is true is not as foolish as you think.

      • midiguru says:

        Okay, I’ll bite: Give me one single solitary reason why “believing the New Testament is true” makes even a shred of sense.

        By which, of course, I mean a scientifically verifiable reason, one that does not rely on the observer’s prior commitment to a particular non-fact-based belief system.

        The interesting thing about the New Testament, from what I’ve read, is that there is no independent historical verification of its account. I mean, even the mundane stuff, leaving aside the miracles. The historical data is spotty for most things during that period, to be sure. We have only two or three historical accounts of the Roman emperors, for instance, and those were written long after the fact, by people whose biases are often pretty clear. But there are also statues and coins and stuff. The stories in the New Testament, on the other hand, could very easily have been made up. They could be fiction. The first independent mentions that we have of the Christian sect are in about 64 A.D., or so I’ve read — about 30 years after Jesus supposedly died.

        We do know that various versions of the Gospels were circulated, containing all sorts of variations that were, not to put it too delicately, suppressed. They didn’t make it into the official version. We also know that the official version contains a number of internal contradictions — so even taken at face value, it can’t all be true.

        But I’ll go back to what I said: Give me a reason why it makes even a shred of sense.

      • There *are* no scientifically verifiable reasons, lol, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Is there a way to scientifically prove it’s *not* true? Do you really want to keep discussing this?

        (For those that aren’t aware, Jim and I have been discussing this for two days across four different threads. What you’re reading here is not the entire discussion. =)

  2. Will says:

    I am the totality of my drives? Sounds like multiple personalities to me. If Bach was an automaton and that kid in the garage down the street wacking his guitar is also an automaton, how do we describe the difference in their output? Are some drives more fruitful than others? Does this reduce beauty to the biological? Nevertheless, interesting stuff here. How are “nipple enhancers” possibly a related post?

    • midiguru says:

      WordPress generates the “possibly related posts” automatically. That’s not something I have any control over.

      Clearly, beauty is entirely biological, since the word “beauty” is being spoken by beings (you and me) who are entirely biological. I don’t quite see how that causes any problem in describing the differences between the music of Bach and the music of a guitar wanker. We continue to describe those differences just as we always have.

      Are some drives more fruitful than others? Obviously so. Some drives produce happy, stable families, for instance, while others cause domestic violence and lead to prison terms. The strength of a drive doesn’t relate in any way to its likely outcome.

    • midiguru says:

      …and yeah, it’s multiple personalities. Precisely. The idea that there is a single consistent “you” living in your head is not really very well supported, I think. Consider: Within the course of a single day, you might be a loving father, a crooked employee who is scared of his boss, a testosterone-fueled sports fan, a dutiful husband taking care of chores, and a semi-comatose sentimental drunk. Which of those is “the real you”? If there is a “real you” that transcends and includes all of those states, what are its stable characteristics?

      I don’t think such characteristics have ever been identified. I’ve read a few of Oliver Sacks’s books, and while he may never articulate that conclusion explicitly, it sort of forces itself into my awareness. Everything in your personality is generated by brain activity, and lesions in one part of the brain or another can change absolutely anything about whatever you think is “you.”

  3. Rouette 30 says:


    When you started by giving the example of the menu I thought you would mean that we are as free to chose anything we want, as with the menu. A menu has very specific, limited choices. We are free to choose from the menu, not whatever we may like. That may be another example of the illusion of free will.

    Also, I don’t see what is the point of free will since eternal factors shape our personalities for th mos part. Call it luck. Rich parents, physical appearance, place of birth. We have no control of this parameters which shape us to what we are for the most part. So, even if we had free will, it would be the product of external, random factors.

    • Ken says:

      I, too, thought Jim was going down the road of the limitations of the menu as Roulette30 did. Very thought provoking post, thank you. And now I wonder what my motivation/drive is to ponder the post.

      Found this site googling “Keyboard Magazine.” Glad to see Jim active, and I still have many of his articles saved from my magazines back from when I subscribed.

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