The Illusion of Free Will

“Each brain yields the agony, the ecstasy, the confusion, the sadness, the curiosity, the disappointment, and every other mental state that makes us human. Each brain harbors the memories, creativity, and, maybe, some madness. It is the brain that catches the ball, scores the goal, flirts with strangers, or decides to invade Poland. It is the brain that experiences the thoughts, feelings, and motivations.”

Written over 2 days. Finishing inside Starbucks in Los Gatos with a latte that needs more sugar. “The Crystal Method” (EDM) is on my Pandora station. This post was inspired after a recent conversation with a large group of folks. Free Will came up late in the discussion. I decided to write a little more since I did not have a lot of time during the discussion to explain my position. It’s 3100 words. I feel that my position is bolstered if I integrate the concept of Theory of Mind (TOM), but thought 3100 words was enough and left out TOM. I did not proofread- so if something doesn’t look right, then come up with your own interpretation.

wdwdIn 1966, Charles Whitman, an ex-marine, positioned himself on the tower of the University in Austin while firing 150 rounds killing 14 people and injuring another 32 before he was finally shot dead by police. This was one of the first examples of a modern-day phenomenon of mass shootings. When I think about this atrocity, I can’t help but ask the question – Why? Perhaps he was helpless in full control of his capacities and, instead, could have chosen a different route that day and opt for writing poetry in the park. But if he was in fact helpless, can he be held responsible?

In The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood highlights Whitman’s suicide note. Whitman wrote, “After my death I wish an autopsy would be performed to see if there is any visible physical disorder.” He knew something was not right. And he was correct. Deep inside his brain was a sizeable tumor in the region of his amygdala. The amygdala if part of the brain circuitry responsible for emotional behaviors: damage to this region can cause excessive swings in rage and anger. So did Whitman murder those innocent people or did his tumor?

Empirical Evidence of the Illusion

Whether it’s a killing rampage or ordering off the menu in your local deli, we lack the free will that we think we have. If you are rolling your eyes now, then let’s use some empirical data. In the 1980s, Californian physiologist Benjamin Libet, was working on the neural impulses that generate movements and motor acts. Prior to most voluntary acts, such as pushing a button with a finger, a spike of neural activity occurs in the brain’s motor cortex region that is responsible for producing the eventual movement of the finger. This is known as the readiness potential, and it is the forerunner to the cascade of brain activation that actually makes the finger move. Of course, in making the decision, we also experience a conscious decision or free will to initiate the act of pushing the button about a fifth of a second before we actually begin to press. But here’s the spooky thing. Libet demonstrated that there is a mismatch between when the readiness potential began and the point when the individual experienced the conscious intention to push the button. Libet established that adults felt the urge to push the button a full half second after the readiness potential had already been triggered. In other words, the brain activity was already preparing to the press the button before the subject was aware of his own conscious decision. This interval was at least twice as long as the time between consciously deciding to push the button and the actual movement of the finger. This means that when we think that we are consciously making a decision, it has already happened unconsciously. In effect, our consciousness is living in the past. One might argue that half of a second is hardly a long time but, more recently, researchers using brain imaging have been able to push this boundary back to 7 seconds. So is determinism the answer?


Determinism is the acknowledgment that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. My basic stance is that free will is an illusion. The reason why my claim is held by only miniscule of adherents, is that free will just seems so real! Several minutes ago I walked up to the barista and made – what I felt like was my decision – an order for a latte. Why did I order the latte rather than a mocha? The answer that “appears” to be correct is that I made a uncoerced decision and was compelled by no one; thus I ordered the latte because that is what I desired. But where did the desire for the latte come from? Did I, of my own free will, induce desire within me and summon the neurotransmitters in my brain states to set the intention of an urge for a hot latte? I simply do not possess this ability. Just because it “feels” like free will, certainly doesn’t mean it is free will. The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.

The reality though, is that thoughts, moods, and desires of every sort just spring into view – and move us, or fail to move us, for reasons that are, from a subjective point of view, perfectly inscrutable. Why did I use the term “inscrutable” in the previous sentence? I must confess I do not know. Was I free to do otherwise? What could such a claim possibly mean? Why, after all, didn’t the word “opaque” come to mind? Well, it just didn’t – and now that it vies for a place on the page, I find that I am still partial to my original choice. Am I free with respect to preference? Am I free to feel that “opaque” is the better word, when I just do not feel that it is the better word? Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. My mind can only change me.

Free Will Starts with the Brain

wdqWhy did I choose to see the horror movie, The Forest, last week with a group of people? Certainly felt like I made the conscious decision to go of my own free will. And why is it that while watching the movie, I found myself honestly scared? No matter how I tried to control my fears and anticipate something jumping out at me, I felt helpless. The brain is the starting point for this discussion. The lump of tissue inside our head functions with around 170 billion cells, 100 billion neurons, sensory neurons, motor neurons and interneurons. With just 500 neurons, the number of possible different patterns connections you could have exceeds the estimated total number of atoms in the observable universe. With billions of neurons, each with up to 10,000 connections, that suggests an almost infinite number of possible brain states. Damage to the cerebellum and we may have slurred speech or stagger when we walk. Damage to our amygdala can turn us into a pedophile or cause us to act in fits of rage. Damage to our cortex can mean that we become extremely socially awkward or have difficulty with problem solving. Where is the free will in this?

There is a constant constructing of simulations or stories to make sense of our experiences – and we are completely unaware of the billions of computations going on inside. As Sam Harris states, each brain yields the agony, the ecstasy, the confusion, the sadness, the curiosity, the disappointment, and every other mental state that makes us human. Each brain harbors the memories, creativity, and, maybe, some madness. It is the brain that catches the ball, scores the goal, flirts with strangers, or decides to invade Poland. It is the brain that experiences the thoughts, feelings, and motivations.”

Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing I can do about the brain states that arise within me. I cannot control the neurotransmitters of oxytocin released when I was invited to the movie whereby pleasure was felt. I may have felt like I decided to go to the movie, but the desire and intention to be with great people was set by my brain. I can no more self-generate the feeling of pleasure [that dictated my plans for that evening] than I can self-generate the blood enzymes in my body or my next heartbeat.

And why the hell do I get so scared during some of the scenes, even though I do not even believe in the supernatural or paranormal? I have to consider the conglomeration of childhood boogiemen in my closets, nightmares that seemed so real, and Freddy Kruger movies that transported me into a horror fantasyland. My genetics along with the decades of experiences that propelled me into frightened states is what gives me the amygdala I have today. The amygdala is the place in the brain where emotions of fear and anger (also pleasure) are birthed. If I had the free will to control my amygdala, trust me I would. However, I am a victim of my amygdala. My wife sitting next to me can say, “Stop jumping out of your seat!”, but it will not work no matter how much I want it to.  Where is the free will in that?

My fright involves the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neural architecture. Moreover, my biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the decision has been arrived at independently.

Ultimately, I am compelled to do what I effectively want. And I cannot determine my wants, or decide which will be effective in advance. My mental life is simply given to me by the cosmos. Why didn’t I decide to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens instead of The Forest? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not.

Illustration of the Illusion

wdqwdqwAllow me to borrow an illustration from Michael McGuire that will illuminate my previous points. Consider the following example. You have inherited a considerable amount of money. You wish to invest it, but you have minimal experience in financial matters. From a variety of sources, you obtain recommendations about investing. With each new recommendation, you experience a change in your evolving plan about how to invest. Last week, you were thinking about buying stocks, but today, an annuity looks most interesting. After a while, there are multiple options. Throughout all of this, you believe you are involved in making a voluntary choice based on the recommendations you have received.

In this example, unperceived brain systems appear to be creating and revising largely learned models in response to new information. As new models are developing, they are influenced by memories of prior behavior, pleasure, reward, pragmatics, and a variety of other factors, such as one’s age and sex, health, and social status. Choices aren’t random. They don’t occur without the presence of models or some equivalent. In this example, the models deal with investment choices and possible financial outcomes. What has happened is that you have selected a model from those available in your library of models. But note that your choice is limited to models in your library. The choice is “free” in the sense that you might have opted for investing in X rather than Y.

Eventually, the recommendation for how to invest your money cease. You invest in gold, something you hadn’t considered when you began your search. A free-will choice has occurred because there have been extended periods of awareness associated with creating, revising, and assessing a variety of models and rejecting all but one.

Throughout this process, you are likely to believe that you are evaluating different investment possibilities. You are, but your belief temporarily trails unperceived evaluation and decision-making processes. You may also believe that you are reviewing models and rejecting some because they don’t promise sufficient financial return. This is also happening.

At least two factors appear essential for free-will. One is the availability of models from which to select. The second is the presence of systems that can prioritize models to facilitate selection. Systems dealing with pleasure and reward and pragmatics have been mentioned as facilitators.

What About Responsibility

untitledThe value of thinking about free will is that it inevitably leads to a discussion around a newish field called neuroethics. In short, neuroethics has to do with integrating neuroscientific knowledge with ethical and social thought. More importantly however, it helps expand our understanding of the brains role with regard to responsibility, intentions and motives with regards to ethics. Consider these two examples:

  1. A four-year-old boy was playing with his father’s gun and killed a young woman. The gun had been kept loaded and unsecured in a dresser drawer.
  2. A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and skilled a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and behavioral impulses).

Now the question is: who is responsible in these two scenarios? We suspect that a four-year-old child cannot truly intend to kill someone and that his intentions do not run as deep as an adult. This is non-issue given that we have not sent any four-year-olds to death row or life in prison for acts of this nature. The second scenario seems to divest the killer of all responsibility. The moral calculus changes entirely given the location of his tumor. How can we make sense of these moral gradations of moral responsibility when brains and their background influences are in every case, and to exactly the same degree, the real cause of a woman’s death?

We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous. What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm. Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger society.

Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particular blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds – our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill your spouse – well, then killing your spouse reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind that has justified the homicide of your spouse.

Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusions of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter – assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc.

As Sam Harris explains, the men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad environment, and bad ideas (and the innocent, of course, have supremely bad luck). Which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being is responsible for his genes or his upbringing, yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character. Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself. Thus, the importance of neuroethics helps us understand the underlying causes of human behavior of why people do what they do.

If Determinism, then I am Just a Meaningless Robot

ggRight now I am sitting at a Starbucks in Los Gatos, California. I have decided to do an eight mile run early this afternoon. And tonight, I have decided to go to my in-law’s house to celebrate my wife’s birthday with some homemade tacos. Now that I think about it, I might revise my plan and do a five-mile run around Lexington Reservoir for some hilly trails. I must admit that I am quite excited about today. I love running, but even more so, I love running on beautiful scenic trails. Oh, and tacos tonight! Yes, I am looking forward to that, and spending time with family. Today carries a lot of meaning and purpose, and I intend to live it to the fullest, even though -deep down – I believe that my free will is only an illusion.

I could, however, instead of running, put on a mask and hoody and rob the Wells Fargo nearby. And then after my heist, maybe I’ll take off all of my clothes and run down the middle of downtown Los Gatos yelling, “Pizza My Heart serves better pizza than Round Table Pizza!” If this were to happen, one could say that this was out of character for me; I would feel that I was not in my right mind, or that I was not responsible for my actions.

Given that I am in my right mind, however, the five mile run and family night is most appealing to my desires. Furthermore, the pleasure/reward neurotransmitters are in effect while deliberating about my plans for the day. But this involves so much more than chemicals in our brains. Included in my decision making is the long history of enjoyable experiences that have come from exercising and being with family. And if I decide to skip my run and continue to write in Starbucks, then, even though it feels like I revised my plan of my own free will, it is nevertheless my brain along with antecedent experiences that initiate the desire – and my response naturally follows. I could revise my plans ten more times, but nothing changes my argument.

As a determinist, things are not meaningless for me. My knowing that free will is an illusion does not eliminate the sense of meaning and excitement from running next to redwood trees. As an analogy, quantum physics reveals that a brick has more space than mass, but it doesn’t mean that I am not going to duck if you through a brick at my head. Here is another analogy: It’s like saying we are stardust – which we are. But we don’t feel like stardust. And the knowledge that we are stardust is not driving our moral intuition or our system of criminal justice. Therefore, just because my mind propels me in directions that are out of my control, it doesn’t mean that I cannot experience beauty and wonder. And just because things are determined, it doesn’t mean I am surrendered to a life of resignation and fatalism.

If after all of this, you ask, “why is life meaningful as a determinist?”; then you simply are consensually complicit in your own ignorance. That we are stardust doesn’t mean life is meaningless; simply listen to how astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson’s lectures make science illuminate life! That a brick is mostly empty space doesn’t mean that it cannot crack my cranium. And simply because it feels like you have free will, doesn’t mean that you do.

~ Wes Fornes