Are we really endowed with free will?

In his 1943 book Physics and Philosophy, British physicist, astronomer and mathematician Sir James Jeans writes,

“Practically all modern philosophers of the first rank — Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Alexander, as well as many others — have been determinists in the sense of admitting the cogency of the arguments for determinism, but many have at the same time been indeterminists in the sense of hoping to find a loophole of escape from these arguments.  Often they conceded that our apparent freedom is an illusion, so that the only loophole they could hope to find would be an explanation as to how the illusion could originate.”

Now, think of a time when you made a choice you consider to be freely willed.

Then, say whether or not that choice was caused.

If you say the choice was caused, the causal regression makes free will impossible.

If you say the choice was uncaused, that would mean the choice was random. 

Random thoughts are not what we mean when we say we believe a thought is freely willed.



At about the 5th century BC, in his work On the Mind, the Greek Philosopher Leucippus penned the earliest known universal statement describing what we today understand as determinism, or the law of cause and effect:


“Nothing happens at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”

The concepts of will and free will are actually Christian in orgin. It was Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, which is dated at about 58 A.D., who first discovered this thing we call human will. He came to it by recognizing that he could not often do as much right as he wanted. Saint Paul wrote in Romans 7:15 that:

“I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t.” I do what I don’t want to – what I hate.”

Nothing new was said on the matter for the next few hundred years until St. Augustine grappled with the concepts of evil and justice. Saint Augustine wrote in his book De Libero Arbitrio, 386-395 A.D., (translated as “On Free Will”)

“Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

The problem he saw was that if human beings do not have a free will, it would be unfair for God to arbitrarily reward or punish us. St. Augustine concluded that God could not be unfair, and so he created the concept of a human free will, whereby we earn our reward or punishment by what we freely do.


Free will being an illusion, and not representative of how things really are, our belief in it is very problematic to our actions on both a personal and global level.  It leads to blame, accusations, conflict, competition, self-blame, arrogance, envy, and creates a lot of problems.  My hope is that as we overcome this illusion, we’ll create a much more intelligent, compassionate, and understanding world. 

When we say that we have a free will, we are saying that our decisions are completely up to us.  Neither genetics nor environment — including what we learned or didn’t learn in the past, can influence our behavior.  A free will would give us the ability to over-ride any, and all, influences, and make decisions completely on our own.

The two strongest refutations to that are that, firstly, we have an unconscious where all of our memories are stored.  That unconscious is obviously not in our control.  We’re not even conscious of it.  It’s also the part of our brain that contains the processes by which we make our decisions.  When we make a decision, we’re not thinking to ourselves, “Why exactly did I decide that?”  “What calculations did I use?”  This all takes place at the level of the unconscious.  If both the data and the processing for making decisions occur in the unconscious, obviously that makes free will impossible.  Our decisions are being made at a level of our mind that we’re not in control of, and that we’re not even aware of in real time. 

The second reason free will is impossible is that everything has a cause.  If we make a decision, there is a cause for that decision.  And there’s a cause for that cause, and a cause for that cause, and if you follow that chain of cause and effect back through its history, it stretches back to before we were born.   

Let’s begin refuting Frankfurt’s “Second Order Desires” claim against free will.  Harry Frankfurt is a philosopher who claims that while other animals have “first order” desires, human beings have both first and second order desires.  An example of a first order desire might be that we want something to eat because we’re on a diet, and want to lose some weight.  A second order desire, in this case, would be that we want something to eat, but would rather that we didn’t want something to eat.”  It’s a desire about a desire.

Frankfurt is saying that because we have second order desires, that prospect would somehow give us a free will.  There is no logic in that, as we’ll see later, but that’s his assertion.  Let’s first defend our animal friends.  Throughout history, we’ve made claims that animals don’t feel, and we’ve treated animals horribly because of this absurd notion.  Whether it is farm animals or lab animals, we refuse to acknowledge, and admit to ourselves, that they absolutely do feel pain. 

There is no evidence for the assertion that animals don’t have second order desires.  For example, a dog named Cachidulo lives an apartment, and wants to pee.  He wants to pee, but there is no one around to take him out for a walk.

Cachidulo knows that in the past when he’s gone to the bathroom on a carpet or other floor, he has been punished.  We can all relate to the idea that a dog would have that understanding.  Naturally, Cachidulo would very probably want to not want to go to the bathroom.  Cachidulo is probably saying to himself, “Gee I wish I didn’t have to go to the bathroom, because I would rather not get punished afterwards.  Dogs clearly have second order desires. 

Let’s say we have a second order desire.  We want to not want to eat, or we want to not want to smoke, or not want to whatever.  But, how would that grant us a free will?  A want is a reason, and whether it’s a direct want or a want about a want, it’s causal.  If it’s a want about a want – if I would want to not want to eat – there will be a reason for wanting that.  When you have a reason, you have a cause.  So, the simple refutation to these Frankfurt-style second order desire arguments for free will is “No, a second order desire in no way allows the decision to escape this law of causality that governs everything.

Second order desires are not a valid demonstration of free will because of causality.  Naturally, the causality of the unconscious refutes this claim equally well.  That second order desire – that wanting to not want something – is taking place at the level of the unconscious.  It is drawing from information stored in the unconscious.  There have to be reasons why we would want, or not want, to do something.  There is also our reasoning process.  If all of our data – our memories and other stored information – is in our unconscious, then the processing of our decisions must also be made at the level of the unconscious.  We can understand how we have no control over our unconscious.  The unconscious is certainly a part of us – no one is disputing that – but it’s a part that we have absolutely no real-time control over. 

It’s as if your hand was saying “I made this decision to put myself here,” whereas the reality is that your mind made the decision.  Our conscious mind simply becomes aware of decisions that the unconscious makes, and claims credit for them.  There are actually many experiments in neuroscience and psychology, like experiments with hypnosis, that demonstrate this misattribution.  For example, subjects are hypnotized and given a post-hypnotic suggestion to do something.  They come out of the hypnosis, and perform the post-hypnotic suggestion.  They are then asked why they did what they did.  They then make up a reason, or, more sincerely, plead ignorance.  They express no recognition, or knowledge, that the reason they did what they did was because of the post-hypnotic suggestion. 

Every decision is made at the level of the unconscious, because that is where at least some of the data is.  The decision making process must also be unconscious to be able to access that data.  Naturally, since we can’t control the unconscious, the decisions it makes cannot be thought of as having been freely made by our conscious mind.

Frankfurt had a few other claims that are a mistaken in terms of how they would allow for a free will.  He claims that free will is having the will that we want.  In other words, if we can want what we want to want, to him that’s free will.  But that’s not free will.  That’s just luck.  If we have a will to stop smoking, for example, and we’re actually able to succeed with this, we’re fortunate.  Such fortune in no way demonstrates that our want was freely willed.

When we consider the question of human will in terms of wants, or desires, we understand why free will is impossible.  We’re not in control of our desires.  Whether we desire a certain kind of food, or experience, or music, or clothing, or whatever, these are preferences that are the complete result of genetics and past experience.  We can’t, at the moment we’re making a decision, just choose our desires.  They have been chosen for us by this causal process of nature and nurture. 

Frankfurt makes another kind of curious assertion.  He says that some people are what he describes as “wontons.”  He says that these people don’t have impulse control.  They can’t control their impulses, so they naturally don’t have a free will.  He’s, of course, right about impulses.  We all have impulses, and to the extent that we can’t control them, that naturally demonstrates that the impulses, and not a free will, are controlling us.

But, he claims that those of us who can control our impulses have a free will.  Why does that not make sense?  Let’s say we control an impulse.  Why did we do that?  There must have been a reason.  Once we have a reason for doing something, we have a cause for doing something.  Naturally, that cause has a cause, and that cause has a cause, and you end up with a causal regression leading to before our planet was created. 

Any time there’s a question regarding why we do anything, or an assertion that we have a free will, the refutation is always the same.  For example, one plus one is always going to equal two.  That will be the answer whether the ones are in Roman numerals or Chinese characters, or whatever.  It’s always the same answer.  With any claim to a free will, there are two basic answers.  The first is causality.  If a decision, to control our impulse has a reason, that reason is a cause. 

Causality is the reason why the decision is not freely willed.  The other reason is the unconscious.  We generally tend to think somewhat linguistically.  Some of us think more in terms of imagery, but our thinking tends to involve the memory of concepts like “table,” and “chair,” which are stored in our memory.  In order to make a decision about whatever, we have to consider it.  If that information is not consciously available to us, it must be stored in the unconscious.  It has to be, because for it to be consciously available, we would have to be aware at the moment of any decision every word and every memory that we’ve ever had.  That is clearly impossible.  We have to study to take tests.  If we had a free will, we could just commit something to memory, and at test time just write it without hesitation, because we could freely draw whatever we willed from our memory bank.  Obviously, very few of us can do that to any substantial degree, and even we who can, at a certain point, fail at accessing the memories.  It is always our unconscious that allows us to access any of that information. 

The unconscious not only stores the data upon which we’re making decisions, impulse control, or whatever, but also our actual decision making processes.  Why are we deciding one way rather than another?  Is it a moral decision?  Is it a hedonic decision?  Is it a rational decision?  These are all considerations that are taking place at the unconscious level.  We obviously don’t consciously go through the entire process of why we’re making a decision when we think.  That’s often what a gut feeling is about.  Someone asks us something, and we wait for the answer to come to us. 

Let’s briefly discuss the notion of second order desires from the standpoint of desires.  Desires are conditioned to a great extent.  The foods we prefer are different from the foods people from other countries prefer.  This starts very early. 

We’re conditioned to like something, or not.  Sometimes even at a very early age, you find that mothers will try to get their kids to eat spinach and some other foods.  It doesn’t always work.  Sometimes our desires are genetic.  Our strongest desire – the one actually responsible for all of our decisions, including moral decisions– is the hedonic desire, or the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  We’re hard-wired for that.  All organisms are hard-wired for that. 

Let’s consider a second order desire to stop eating.  Why would we want to do that?  Perhaps we want to be healthier, or happier, or whatever.  Any time we desire to not want something, there is a hedonic reason for that desire.  That reason relates to our well-being.  We predict that if we don’t want to want a certain thing, or don’t want to not want a certain thing, that will make our life, or the lives of those around us, better.  The hedonic imperative of always seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is a great way to understand why we don’t have a free will.  If all of our decisions are based on that imperative, obviously we can’t have a free will.

We generally talk about how our wills are completely determined by causality, and how the past moment completely determines our will.  But, we should remember that everything is completely causal.  If you go outside and see cars and people moving, and birds flying, take notice that everything is happening in a completely causal way.  We are actually taking part in a kind of movie, and reality, or our world, is the movie. 

It’s even more amazing than that, because generally with a movie, the actors get to interpret their roles somewhat.  Actors have some say in how they interpret their character, and play their role.  But in this movie called reality – our universe – we don’t even get to interpret our roles.  Our every reaction to everything is predetermined.  What I’m also saying is that it’s not just human behavior that is causal.  It’s not just animal behavior that is causal.  The Sun, and the rain, and the entirety of nature, are all causal.  It’s all predetermined.  I do not describe reality as “predestined,” because that relates to the religious concept that some people are pre-destined to a better or worse place in the afterlife.  But, essentially, everything that is happening at this moment in time is predetermined by cause and effect.

We’re spectators, rather than the writers.  We experience, rather than decide.  From a religious perspective, asserting that we have a free will is like asserting that we are mini-gods who “create” decisions.  However, if we believe in a God that is all-powerful, all powerful means that God’s decisions rule.  Our actions are basically expressing God’s will.  We’re instruments of God.  That way of understanding our human will makes a lot of sense to many of us.  It feels a lot better than describing us as robots or puppets, or computers. 

A computer is programmed to do certain tasks, and it has no free choice but to do those tasks.  We can accurately describe ourselves as robots or puppets or computers, but that self-definition is impersonal.  I believe in God, because I define God as everything, which makes God synonymous with our universe.  By retaining our belief in God, and understanding our lack of free will within that context, we personify both ourselves and our wider reality.  God is generally defined as omniscient, or all-knowing.  God is also often described as  omnipresent, or everywhere.  If God is everywhere, we are a part of God.  Everything is a part of God.  There isn’t anything that exists that isn’t a part of God.  Logically, if God created everything, S/He had to have created everything from Her/Himself.  From that standpoint, we’re the hands of God.  We’re the instruments of God, and the vehicles for God’s will. 

We’re certainly a part of God, but we’re not the decision making part.  There is a part of reality that you can define as either the causal past or God, although it’s more precisely defined as the causal past.  The question then arises; does God have a free will?  Can God break this law of causality?  I’m not sure S/He can.  I would hope S/He can’t, because I like to believe in a good and loving God.  That understanding obviously doesn’t make sense because there are so many not-so-good and unloving things in the world.  But, to the extent that I ascribe a free will to God, then I would have to hold Her/Him responsible.  If I understand that God is compelled by causality in every act, I can hold God as innocent as we are.

When we fall for the notion that we have a free will, we hold ourselves responsible.  We indict ourselves, and convict ourselves, and punish each other and ourselves.  When we understand that we don’t have a free will, and we hold ourselves as innocent, we’re much more understanding. 

Some of us are afraid that if we abandon the illusion of free will, everyone will just do whatever they want, because they will say, “You can’t blame me.  I’m programmed – blame the universe.”  The reason we would not let that happen is because we’re programmed, to be hedonic creatures.  We’re always going to seek pleasure and avoid pain, both as individuals and as a society.  This means that if someone is going around doing something that is not good for them, or us, we’re going to take steps to not allow that.  I trust you now understand why the Frankfurt second order desires argument for free will just doesn’t make sense.