Does Free Will Exist?

Free will is complicated.

Camp 1: Some people believe free will exists absolutely:  these people would say everyone operates with 100% free will – we all essentially “come up with” our own thoughts and feelings and we choose our actions, or we at least choose how to interpret and manage all of our own thoughts, feelings, and actions, thus we have free will.

Camp 2: Some people believe that some free will exists, but that there’s probably not much of it, and/or that it probably doesn’t exist in the way we generally perceive.

Camp 3: Others believe there is inherently no free will, that humans essentially have zero agency in their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Note:  there are other camps, or sub-camps, but for organizational purposes this post will only reference these three. 

Free will deniers (camp 3) essentially arrive at their conclusion by reasoning that everything is causal and determined – that events only occur as a result of a previous occurrence or series of occurrences, or as a result of randomly generated processes. And they would admit that they technically reached this conclusion unfreely.

They would go on to say events are determined in the sense that the past – the intricate narrative of all previous macro-level and micro-level events – has written and is currently ‘writing’ all of our present experiences. 

This determinist camp believes human thought, feeling, and action results from an interrelated, and often interdependent, seesaw-like combination of two processes:  

1) Environmental stimuli and genetic encoding is affecting, and has previously affected the brain, and the brain processes and responds to these genes and experiences and subsequently dictates how we think, feel, and act, essentially not leaving any room for personal agency

[Basic Mechanism]: the environment and genes cause the brain to responsively cause thought, feeling, and action]

2) The brain generates thoughts, feelings, and actions, which cannot be a result of personal agency since the physiological sequence indicates that any semblance of “agency” must necessarily come after the neuronal firing that produced it, and thus the actual generative source of thought, feeling, and action is unknown 

[Basic Mechanism: the brain, somehow, causes itself to cause thought, feeling, and action.]

The implication is that neither process, whether operating independently or interdependently, necessitates agentic influence, or free will.

In basic terms, free will deniers say genes and environment determine how the brain operates, AND the brain itself somehow generates thoughts, feelings, and actions before – often just micro-moments before – “you” carry out those instructions. Thus, how you operate is entirely deterministic. 

Moreover, they say you technically never possess true agency, that free will is an illusion – “you” are essentially just the observer, feeler, experiencer, or actor of physical/physiological processes that are beyond your control.

An important semantic discrepancy between believers and deniers involves differentiating self and brain – the idea that ‘my brain’ did it vs ‘I’ did it.

Free will deniers would say the brain is technically the agentic source – the sole sender and receiver of all information – and is thus solely responsible, or at least the final filter, for thought, feeling, and action. 

And they would say the brain is not equivalent to a whole agentic person – the brain doesn’t completely account for consciousness and the body, two relevant “entities” that are distinguishable (or arguably distinguishable to some degree in the case of consciousness, i.e. the “hard problem of consciousness”) from the brain and that are at least as integral to defining an agentic person as the brain.

Free will believers (camp 1) would essentially say, 

“Well yeah, my brain is responsible for generating the thoughts and feelings that determine my actions, but since my brain is the most integral, most defining aspect of me, then there’s no meaningful difference between saying ‘my brain’ did it’ vs ‘I’ did it.”

So that’s the gist of the semantic debate at hand: the attempt to determine whether or not there’s a meaningful difference in the operational definitions and in the conceptual interpretations of terms.

Free will believers would argue, “Free will exists, and it matters to believe in free will because we all must assume full responsibility for our actions. There isn’t enough significance in the technical processes behind the causal influence of events to meaningfully distinguish myself from my genes, my response to environment, and my brain. Even though there are certainly internal and external “forces” that influence me, I still have a choice in how I think, feel, and act.”

Free will deniers would argue, “Free will does not exist and this matters because, although we must certainly be held responsible and accountable for our actions, we are not technically responsible and accountable for our actions, especially not morally. And even if there’s no choice involved in learning and retaining this knowledge (just like choice isn’t technically involved in learning and knowing 2 + 2 = 4), learning and knowing that free will doesn’t exist will significantly help individuals and social systems (like governments) respond objectively to human error, which in turn can create more fairness and efficiency in matters of justice and in systemic and social problem solving. 

They’d argue that spreading this technical knowledge enables a rational and compassionate approach to human interaction, and it diminishes the reactive need to harbor any feelings of hate, including self-hate or intense shame or guilt, and more importantly it diminishes the reactive urge to act out of hate. And even though it’s all “technically speaking”, it’s still a logical truth that can be, and perhaps should be, employed by everyone to optimize human functioning.

Ok but, if I choose to accept that free will doesn’t exist, what’s the point of making an effort to do anything? And if we don’t choose anything, how is anything meaningful?

If free will doesn’t exist, you obviously won’t “choose” to accept or deny it. It may feel like you’re choosing, but your brain is just processing information and will essentially choose what makes most sense. 

Assuming your brain has the capability to process the logic behind free will denial, your brain will determine whether or not the logic is sufficient enough to change its schemas and subsequently change how you operate. But even if your brain adopts the logic behind the concept of free will’s absence, the change it undergoes will essentially not be meaningful enough to significantly affect your motivation: your brain will continue to dictate that doing stuff is still worth the effort – you have basic human needs to fulfill, and you also already know the value of human experience and thus you are intrinsically motivated.

Furthermore, if you accept that free will doesn’t exist, any subsequent experience is still as meaningful as it ever was – your brain is essentially fixed and stable enough to still make you think and feel and act however you do regardless of free will’s role. And even if you’re not agentically choosing or willfully deciding anything in your experience, it doesn’t inhibit meaning. 

An effect (a human experience) can still have a legitimate impact even if the cause (some agentic force) is undefined. Your course of action will still be the same even if your sense of free will is dismissed, and your sentient human experience will continue to have genuine meaning. 

Before concluding, it should be stated that this post is admittedly simplistic. There are much more detailed, structured arguments for and against free will. The main purpose of this post is simply to conceptualize free will and the debate about its existence. 

Concluding Analysis, and an idea of what really matters:  

Camp 2 seems to be the most effective approach for realistically applying our sense of free will, or the absence thereof, in life. 

Camp 1, to some extent, is correct in its practical approach to free will as it pertains to assuming agency and responsibility. 

Camp 3, perhaps to a larger extent, is probably technically correct in its logic but is arguably too incomplete or unclear and thus for all intents and purposes is functionally impractical or unnecessary to actively employ full-time

A key takeaway from the argument of free will believers (camp 1) is that free will, like time, exists as a viable concept in our functioning world, and the technical source of our thoughts, feelings, and actions is not meaningfully distinguishable from us, so technically defining free will doesn’t make it technically relevant in our practical existence.

A key takeaway from the argument of free will deniers (camp 3) is that free will almost definitely does not technically exist, thus we (our brains) should incorporate this knowledge in attempt to socially absolve others and ultimately make us more compassionate in our judgments. And even if there is free will in a practical sense, there’s simply not enough of it to ever justify the harboring of hate. 

In sum: whether or not free will technically exists, we still must live our lives practically, which entails assuming agency as individuals. There’s simply not enough meaningful evidence at this point in time to overhaul our collective perception of agency and thus actively deny free will in our everyday experience. 

Note: You might think saying we should “assume agency” insinuates we should just pretend to be agentic simply because we’re obliged by society to do so, but this is not necessarily the case. Our innate mind is most likely agentic – we seem to have evolved to operate with a sense of choice and self-control. So we wouldn’t be pretending to be agentic. “Assuming agency” as a default mode just means not actively overriding our innate sense of agency based on the limited conceptual knowledge of free will being an illusion. 

However, the practically-motivated acceptance of free will’s existence should not entirely negate the technical logic of the argument against its existence: the evidence and logic that supports the absence of free will should not be disregarded simply because it’s practically unfeasible for everyone to accept and operate from.

In fact, the notion that free will doesn’t exist should probably be accepted (by the logical brain), or at least it should be considered acceptable

Since there’s probably at most a small amount of free will actually operating in people, we should proceed in adopting the meaningful and beneficial implications of its absence, which includes being more compassionate and not harboring hate. 

END NOTE: I ultimately think it’s important to operate as if free will exists, but also to understand that it (probably) doesn’t. That is, we should assume we have free will in making choices and behaving while knowing “deep down” that we don’t really have it. In fact, I think the more we can convince ourselves of control over our choices, and the more personal responsibility we take, the more good we will do for ourselves and others: we should embrace this naturally convincing sense of agency and utilize it for purposeful action. But, we should also keep in mind the notion that free will most likely doesn’t exist, or that it exists minimally or illusorily, and thus we should situationally employ this liklihood in attempt to become less hateful and more compassionate.