Thinking About Free Will

Wednesday September 23, 2009


I’m thinking once again about free will again (see my previous posts here, here and here), having recently read Sue Blackmore’s . And once again, I am baffled. Free will is something that I have been puzzling over for a long time now, and as long-term visitors to the blog will know, I’m really not entirely sure that I have such a thing. No, it’s more complicated than that, because I’m really not entirely sure that, even if I do have “free will” – as many will insist that I do – I know what kind of a thing it is that I am supposed to have, nor what kind of a difference the having or not of this thing would make. This, for me, is an experiential problem. No doubt I make choices. I wander around, I am bombarded by various sense-impressions, thoughts churn hither and thither, and then… I choose to go left or right, to have coffee or tea. But what goes on inside the black-box of my choosing, and what this has to do with the idea of “freedom”, I have absolutely no idea. And despite ploughing through a fair bit of philosophy on the subject over the years, I remain puzzled. It’s an instructive exercise, after one has chosen something, to ask (as I find myself often asking) “Did I will that choice?” And then, if the answer seems a straightforward “yes”, to ask, “But at what point did the will intervene? How do I know it was the will, and not something else?”

So leaving philosophy on one side, I have over the last few years been practising having no free will. That it to say, I have been giving up on the thought that some little homunculus in my head is responsible for directing me, and instead I have been having the thought (or the thought has been having me…) “What if my actions arise not out of some kind of personal freedom, but merely out of various interacting conditions at play in the world as a whole?” What this means, in practice, is allowing the constant internal conversation around acting and the justification of acting to subside. Because much of the time, what our minds seem to be doing is something like this: “Hmm…. those luminous green cupcakes look rather splendid. Should I have cake? It’s sure to be tasty. But it’s also not cheap. And fattening, probably. And I had a large breafkast. Then there’s that paperwork I should be filling in today, so I should get moving and head to work. Perhaps I should come back this afternoon. But what if the cakes have sold out by then? Oh, I don’t know what to do! How to decide? Maybe I should toss a coin…” and so on and so forth. The whole business is, frankly, rather exhausting. And what happens? Well, a decision eventually pops up, and I find that either a) I have sat myself down for the pleasantly luminous cupcake that I do not really need, or b) I have gone to do my paperwork like the well-behaved fellow that I really ought to be, or c) something else has happened. But I have no idea, if I am being honest, how it is that this decision has popped up, nor what it has to do with this curious notion of the “will”.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve become less and less sure what useful role this kind of internal monologue serves. And the more time goes on, the more I am beginning to think that it’s main function is perhaps to justify those things that I really ought not do. That is to say, when I catch this little mental subroutine doing its thing, and when I just stop myself and say, “OK, forget all this to-ing and fro-ing, and all this ‘I-must-make-a-decision-ing’. Let’s just see what I do next …”, then – perhaps rather curiously – what I do next is often the thing I really ought to do.

The fear is that – if we give up on the idea of this internal decision-maker – somehow we will be giving up on ethics. As I have suggested before, this may just be an internalisation of the idea that without God there is no ethics, with the little decision-making homunculus becoming a kind of internal god directing the whole show. But as time goes on, I have a greater trust in the wisdom of decisions that arise in this “Let’s just see what I do next…” way, than I do in the kinds of decisions that arise in this “Let’s just work out what I ought to do next…” way. This little, insistent subroutine often seems to be decidedly deficient in wisdom, whereas, when I surrender things to my organism as a whole, whilst I’m not exactly coursing in streams of wisdom of unparalleled depth, it seems that there are more resources available to inform whatever choosing I am involved in at that moment, that I am more open to the world as a whole, and that the decisions that arise as if by their own accord are correspondingly rather better informed, rather more elegant and skilful, and just a little bit wiser.

# · George Holland Hill

Why not stop worrying about it, live and act as if you have free will, chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, and your Buddhahood will gradually reveal itself more and more. Everyone is bound by karma from the past and that being formed in the instant of the present. The emerging Buddha (you) sees and enjoys the positive side of even the most apparently negative karma. So try not to get bogged down in intellectual twists and turns — the purpose of life is to be happy, and to help others also be happy. It’s easy really! (Sort of. . .)

Find out more at

Toodle pip!

# · Will

Thanks for your cheery note, George. Don’t worry about me worrying! This is not so much worry/anxiety as fascination. I find something utterly fascinating in the mismatch between my everyday folk-psychology sense of what is going on, and what seems – on closer attention (and on reading a bit of the science) – to be actually going on. And – fear not! – I’m far from entirely missing out on those luminous cupcakes!

# · Jacob Russell

I like this—the implied experiential invitation, that is: try this, as well as/instead of/in additon to—just thinking about it.

I find that questions of free will (on a personal level) arise only in special states—out of a kind of inequilibrium where the river of doing sweeps us out of the current and into a kind of doldrum. It’s from there we notice all the possibilities that appear to be sweeping past and are filled with a dis-ease at our inaction—an anxious desire to grab this or that bit of floatsom to carry us back into the frey (or relieve us of a too-acutely sensitive and painful state of self-consciousness), a state that generates the weighing of consequences, rationalizing imagined pleasures, and guilty self-flagilations you describe. Thorniest of these for me, ones generally classified in the deferred reward file.. things I want more for having done them, then for the doing. A sure set-up for either Bad Writing, or the writing to come altogether to a halt—when I’m more fixed on fantasies of having at last finished the novel, seeing it in print, etc, than on where the voice is leading me from here. In fact, that’s a pretty good description of the out-of-the-flow state—the stagant pool. That’s were we can go on thinking about ‘free will’ forever…the very place we are least free.

# · Peter Clothier

If we don’t have free will, does not the whole idea of karma—one of the basic tenets, surely, of Buddhism—become moot?

# · Zaidi

Free will is the mind that moves the hand to dip into the hat and pull out a rabbit to God’s delight!

# · Mike

Surely the belief in free will is a corollary of the belief in a self. Once we identify ourselves as separate from the processes upon which we are contingent we necessarily attain the illusion of agency. In those moments when the sense of independent selfhood fades so does the thought that there is anyone directing events. I think free will is a philosophical problem for us in exactly the same way that the self is a philosophical problem, but it ceases to be a problem if we stop trying to work it out and just get on with our inexplicable lives.

# · Jayarava

I’m kind of surprised that you don’t take a more Buddhist approach to this question. Surely it is not a matter of free will or not free will? Things, but especially mental activity including decisions arise in dependence on causes. What moves us (cetanā) includes but is not limited to desires both acute and chronic, previous responses to similar stimuli, general level of awarenss.

A more meaningful question is “to what extent am I free to decide?” And the answer may be only a small amount at present, but that awareness practices enhance our ability to make decisions. In particular they tend to reduce the influence of habitual responses, and encourage us to take a realistic approach to experience.

Best wishes

# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will,
I think you’re quite right about the dubiousness of belief in freewill, and I like your close observation of the relationship of that idea to experience. However, I’d like to see you be more even-handed and do a similar job on the equally dogmatic doctrine of determinism (though perhaps you have done that in previous entries that I haven’t read yet). By assuming that there is only one possible set of events and that all events are sufficently caused, determinism also goes far beyond the information provided by experience.

The “answer” to the problem of freewill and determinism is simple: rigorous agnosticism is the only possible sensible response to a pair of doctrines that are equally founded on metaphysical dogma. We cannot possibly ever know whether we have freewill, or whether determinism is true, but we can recognise the undermining effects of a theoretically total responsibility for our actions (or of a theoretical total lack of responsibility) on the actual partial responsibility we experience.

The trouble with Jayarava’s traditional Buddhist response is that it is ambiguous with regard to the Western philosophical problem, and can easily be manipulated either into what is practically a freewill position or a determinist position. Thus it is not surprising that there is a lot of confusion about this issue amongst Buddhists, with some giving Buddhism a libertarian interpretation and others giving it a determinist interpretation. However, without quite a clear and deliberate application of the Middle Way and a resolute avoidance of the dualism of either side I think the Buddhist teachings about conditioning are of little practical use. Ambiguity and agnosticism are quite different positions, which may have quite different practical implications.
Best wishes,

# · Will

Thanks for the comment, Robert. I think I’d prefer to sever talk about free will from questions of determinism/non-determinism. The way I see it, free will is a theory about how choice happens. Now, choice clearly does happen. But the story of free will seems to be an odd way to talk about what is going on in our choosing. Or perhaps its not an odd way to talk about it, if understood correctly. But I’m buggered if I can understand it.

Practically, it may be that we cannot know whether the universe is at some deep level absolutely deterministic or not. And certainly, at the human level, we cannot know all the conditions that lead to any particular actions. So for me – at least in terms of the above – what intrigues me is that in resisting the lure of the idea of free will (& without necessarily accepting determinism – who knows what kind of stray non-deterministic events may be bubbling away somewhere down there) it seems that there is a rather different possibility of choosing that is opened up, and that – contrary to expectations – this different possibility may be somewhat wiser than the kind of possibility we had before.

# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will,
I do agree with you about the different kind of choice that could be inspired by getting past the concept of metaphysical freewill. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s possible to make a lot more sense of the concept of responsibility if you don’t begin with the assumption of a free choice apparently coming out of nowhere. Rather than wondering where freewill comes from, we could focus on appreciating our experience of it, and on our lack of understanding of its complex causes. In doing that, we can then recognise that a sense of responsibility arises from our experience of choice rather than its ultimate causes, and that the limits of our responsibility are framed by the limitations of our understanding of conditions.

However, I think I disagree that this discussion should be ‘severed’ from discussion of determinism. I don’t think we avoid dualistic metaphysical assumptions by ignoring dualisms, but rather by being sufficiently aware of them that we learn how to avoid them: the strategy we might use with a rattlesnake rather than the one we might use with a mosquito. Faced with two rattlesnakes, you keep an eye on them both rather than focusing only on one to end up bitten by the other one.

# · Will

But one problem with the experience of free will, Robert, is that it’s relationship to actual agency is rather loose. We can have the experience of willing when there is no actual agency there, and we can have no experience of willing, when actually there is a kind of agency there (think ouija boards).

My point about dividing talk of free will from talk of determinism is that I simply do not see these as two opposed possibilities. There is one debate – determinism/anti-determinism – and as far as I can see, there’s no way of telling which of these is correct. Then there’s the phenomenon of choice, which we can think about creatively and imaginatively, without committing ourselves to any side of the determinism debate. Free will, once again, seems to me to be a theory about how choice happens. It also seems to me to be a spurious theory. Trying to think differently does not commit us either way in the debate on determinism.

# · jayanatha

Hi Will,

I’ve been fascinated by this topic for a very long time and still find myself unable to choose one position over another. I do tend to think that the science supports the view that we are simply imagining ourselves to be making free choices when in fact the choice has taken place before the thought of doing this or that occurs. According to a recent TV documentary , approximately 6 seconds before.

I used to believe in the hierarchy of freedom suggested by Jayarava, the more aware, the more free, but this is still not free will. There is an inevitable truth about the process but it is still just an expanding of the range of choices that can be made, it says nothing about how the choices are made.

I’ve also tried to hold one idea ie no free will intellectually; while holding the opposite for methodological reasons ie to avoid becoming too passive. I did this partly to avoid the unpleasant aspects of an over emphasis on individual freedom, the blaming of others for their own suffering, which, inevitably allows one to avoid the inconvenience of feeling obliged to help them, create a more just set of conditions, or whatever.

Finally, I think free will or no free will has little or nothing to do with the process of Karma. There is no agency and actions are occurring. Some of those actions have more weight of intention behind them and have a bigger impact on us.

I still don’t know, but I’m enjoying the debate, so thanks Will.

# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will,
I agree with you about the ambiguities of the connection between the experience of freewill and agency. I didn’t actually use the term ‘experience of freewill’ but rather ‘experience of choice’. There is an imperfect and apparent link in our experience between choice and agency, which we have to accept at that level without turning it into a metaphysical belief. Choice may be a much more complex matter than freewill-theory suggests, and the reasons for our choices may be largely post hoc rationalisations; the concept of responsibility may also be largely formed of internalised social control mechanisms; but that doesn’t justify us in giving up the provisional idea of a link between choice and agency

What I want to ask is why freewill is a spurious theory if it is not because of its counter-dependence on determinism? Determinism takes all events to be inevitable, whereas libertarian freewill suggests that we can choose between differing possibilities. Determinism takes all events to be sufficiently caused, but libertarians insist that human choice is not sufficiently caused. Surely the idea of having a single undetermined source of choice is necessarily opposed to determinism, and thus just as much in dualistic opposition to it as is indeterminism? The reason both approaches are spurious is surely because they each go far beyond experience in opposite ways.

# · Will

Good to hear from you, Jayanatha, and thanks for the comment. The link between the idea of free will and a blaming of others is one that Nietzsche was interested in, and I think that there is much in this. How much kindness, I wonder, is there in the idea of free will? (Conversely, I wonder how much kindness there is in the idea of determinism…)

I agree, Robert (and with apologies for the misquotation!) that free will is a spurious theory partly because of its counter-dependence on determinism. But it is also a spurious theory because when you start to explore rather more directly the question of what goes on in our choosing, and when you start to do the kinds of experiments I’m talking about here, it does not seem to bear much relation to experience.

It is this that fascinates me the most about the kinds of experiments that Sue Blackmore suggests, not least because in the light of these kinds of experiments, the apparent link between choice and agency becomes a bit more complex, and the feeling of authorship begins to shift in curious ways.

# · Frank

Have you read up on Alan Watts? In “The Book,” he writes:

“A similar solution aplies to the ancient problem of cause and effect. We believe that every thing and every event must have a cause, that is, some OTHER thing(s) or event(s), and that it will in its turn be the cause of other effects. So how does a cause lead to an effect? To make it much worse, if all that I think or do is a set of effects, there must be causes for all of them going back into an indefinite past. If so, I can’t help what I do. I am simply a puppet pulled by strings that go back into times far beyond my vision

Again, this is a problem which comes from asking the wrong question. Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow sit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later, the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event HEAD is the invariable and necessary cause of the event TAIL, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together; they are all one cat.

The cat wasn’t born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer’s trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn’t see the whole cat at once.

The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way in which we look at life by conscious attnetion, for when we attend to something we ignore everything else. Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to sting the bits together – as when examining a dark room with a flashlifht having a very narrow beam. Perceotion thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but is has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another. And where there are no features, only space or uniform surfaces, it somehow gets bored and searches about for more features. Attention is therefore something like a scanning mechanism in radar or television, and Norbert Wiener and his colleagues found some evidence that there is a similar process in the brain.

But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world IS a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problemof how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.”

In my attempts to understand this idea, I came across ideas such as strange loops and the implicate order of the universe. I suggest you check them out if you haven’t already, but I found this image to be particularly helpful in getting me out of the spot you seem to be in when I myself was there :P

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