Do You Think You Have Free Will?

If you answer yes, watching the below video might give you second thoughts. Serious second thoughts.


What I take from this clip is that my intentions and actions are things for which the ground has already been prepared, unconscious to me, by my brain. I don’t think, “I’ll do x” and then my brain’s neurons scramble to obey. There’s no ghost commanding the machine. Instead, I think “I’ll do x” because the neurons have already lined up all their ducks for carrying out the action. I’m just the cheerleader or announcer, not the player on the field.

Put another way, I’m tagging along behind a movement–a movement not of civil rights marchers, but of neurons, declaring like a news reporter the route that has already been determined and put into motion by them. But instead of identifying this process accurately, I call those others “I.” I is shorthand for them. Like the Gadarene demoniac in the gospels, I am legion. “I want this, I want that; I did this, I did that,” should actually be said this way: “We want this, we want that; we did this, we did that.”

Perhaps we should call our neurons “The Movement.” The Movement wants sex now. The Movement chooses to sleep in. It’s an awkward, even creepy way to talk, but maybe it would break through a lot of illusions.

Here’s another way to think about this. The conscious mind functions like a politician. It takes credit where credit is not due. It’s actually not leading what the masses of neurons are doing, but following and interpreting them.

For example, marriage equality is succeeding in the United States not because President Obama is supporting it, but because the movement for equality has reached critical mass and its historical fruit is falling heavy from the tree. Obama’s support is just another symptom of a historical change, not its cause. He may get “credit” and it will be part of his “legacy,” but it’s actually more complicated than that. The successful politician tends to follow, not get ahead of, public opinion.

Likewise, your expressions of will and your sense that you are leading your life in this or that direction are symptoms of greater forces at work to which you are scarcely aware or even capable of tracing (let alone actually controlling). You might credit yourself with praise or blame for the manifestations of your will, but in reality free will is a shell game relying on your inability to follow where the ball of causation is actually located at any given time.

The Buddhist distinction between the witnessing mind and the moving mind is helpful here. It appears to be true, as Buddhists have said all along, that “you” are actually thoughts without a thinker. In other words, you are just a witness, calling your thoughts the product of an “I” that isn’t actually there. The real thinker (if you want to call it that) is the whole universe of causative movements (however broadly you want to trace them), what Buddhists call the “spontaneous Buddha nature” that is present in each moment. The spontaneous Buddha nature is that shift from one state of being to another, and who can trace or fathom it?

Don DeLillo in his novel White Noise puts the rabbit hole nature of the self and will clearly:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

One implication of this is the following: where free will starts to vaporize, so does the self. That’s unsettling, isn’t it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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30 Responses to Do You Think You Have Free Will?

  1. Logan Rees says:

    I don’t think this experiment disproves free will. The subject knew throughout the experiment that she was supposed to hit one of the keys at some point, so of course while she’s not hitting a key, her brain is constantly deciding when to do so. An increase in brain activity before a decision doesn’t mean that you didn’t make the decision, it just means your brain was working towards that decision during that time.

    I think the debate between free will and determinism goes beyond neural activity, as your brain is part of the universe which either free will or determinism governs.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The problem is the lag time. The evidence here is that decisions are being made (or at the least, strongly influenced or biased) in one direction rather than another BEFORE you are consciously aware of your preference.

      As to your second paragraph, I agree that larger metaphysical premises are at stake and that the argument can shift to them. Since you believe in free will, do I take you, therefore, to be a believer in some form of dualism?


      • Logan Rees says:

        Not sure which dualism you’re referring to. Generally I believe alot of -isms are at play at the same time in most cases. I’m a polyismist.

        If you mean dualism of free will and determinism, then yes. I believe that we do have free will, but that our decisions are grounded in the fabric of causality. Using a hypothetical simulation of the universe where every cause and effect is mapped out, I believe that one could accurately predict every decision made by a person, but the person is unaware of these causes, and so has effective free will. God (the philosophical one) gave us free will but also knows exactly how we will use it.

  2. If you take a subject/person and blind fold them, instruct them to hold out their right hand in the air and imagine they are about to press a button – their brain signals will be the same. It takes several hundred milliseconds to react so our brain fires up what it knows it will need so that it’s ready for action.

    When you want to swat a fly, don’t you put the fly swatter in your hand first?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      So we have “free won’t” as opposed to “free will”? In other words, we’re primed to act, but can stop the action?

      Who then stops the action? Show me this one that stops the action.


  3. Pseudo-science at its best.. did you, by choice, write this article?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Pseudo-science? Making a claim absent a support is argumentation at its worst. And no, “I” did not make the choice to write this article. “We” (the neurons preceding my awareness) apparently did. I subsequently became aware of their built-up collective impulse to write the article as “my” desire and I followed their lead. That’s what the brain science suggests is happening when we “choose.”

      I don’t like the implication of the brain science. I’m not enthusiastic about determinism. I’ve argued against its consequences (in terms of legal responsibility, praise and blame etc.) at this blog before. But I find the science against free will distressingly strong. (You’ve yet to offer anything contradicting it.)

      And it should be noted that free will began as a religious postulate, not a scientific one. You basically need dualism of some sort–a ghost interacting with the machine–to get true, contra-causal free will (free will capable of influencing or disrupting the paths of determinate physical and chemical causation).

      The only thing going for the free will argument in the 21st century is the so-called “quantum enigma”–the weird interaction of the mind of the observer with matter in particle physics experiments. That leaves open the possibility that we haven’t got it all figured out, but there’s certainly a lot to be said for the brain experiments depicted in the above video. Free will is probably an illusion. It’s not being pseudo-scientific to say so.


      • Alan says:

        Santi: If this free-will fiasco was a new topic, I would agree with you that a foundationless claim (Pseudo-science, without argument) would be inappropriate. Re-review Rosenberg’s ‘Guide’ – taken to a logical conclusion, a deterministic ‘man’ is an absurd caricature of a human. We would be less functional than a colony of ants (who have free will, but probably not consciousness). Free will deniers are woefully misreading the experimental results to the extent that their arguments have become over the years a comedy of the absurd.

      • How can I argue with someone who isn’t in control of their argument? hahahaha

      • Logan Rees says:

        Probably should have read this before I responded to your reply on my comment cuz you answered my question. But to extrapolate, I don’t think the dualism is necessarily a ‘ghost in the machine’ as much as it is a contradiction of definition. If our free will is governed by causality, we are not aware of the causes, and so to us our will is free. You can see it as the ‘illusion of free will,’ but I see it as a contradiction in definition. If causality is the will of God (the philosophical one), then our free will is inherent to God’s will.

        The quantum question is a tricky one, but I also think that has more to do with our perception being limited. I think we are trying to observe a level of the universe that is unobservable to us and so our observation of it yields a result that we can observe, even if it is not the wholly true picture of what the hell’s going on down there.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I like the way you put this: “If causality is the will of God (the philosophical one), then our free will is inherent to God’s will.” It’s an interesting formulation. It’s also a compatibilist one (your desires are compatible with what you might call an experience of free will even though you don’t actually disrupt where physical matter was already going). The subjective experience of feeling oneself to be free (doing what one desires) is more important to you, apparently, than actually being divorced from a determinate process.

        I’m still a bit nerved out at being embedded in a matrix that is inescapable and puppeteering me (even as I feel subjective freedom in my puppet movements).

        Modern science seems like the revenge of Calvinism (but without the hope of heaven).


      • Logan Rees says:

        Well you can either fight it or accept it. If you try to divorce yourself from pre-determination by doing something completely random, you’ve been driven by your paranoia of being controlled, which was an effect of the cause that you realized that you’re being controlled, which is an effect of the cause of you thinking about your free will, and so on and so on. You’ve become Oedipus who, in trying to avoid killing his father and fucking his mother, is actually driven right to it (but you don’t have to gauge your eyes out).

        On a separate note, if all of what happens is governed by causality, aren’t cause and effect interchangeable? For example: If I shoot a man and he dies, we would assume that he died because I shot him. But if all effects are predetermined, then he was predetermined to die, so could we not also say that I shot him because he was predetermined to die? Just something I thought of, wondering peoples’ thoughts.

  4. Alan says:

    We absolutely have free will because we evolved with free will. It is not a choice – free will has been forced upon us and it emerged very early in the evolution of brains. It just happens to be, far and away, the most competitive architecture for a brain. Flowers have no free will. Their seed blows where it will, and they live or die on the random chance of where the seed lands. Animals with brains move around to improve their chances, relying less on just chance. Animals that evolve in an un-changing environment would have no use for will as they could simply evolve optimized behavior. Environments were never unchanging so deterministic brains were never able to evolve – they had to be plastic, adaptable, changing and learning. They also have to be fast. Most of what this experiment shows is that brains are fast. Lions are fast, leopards are fast. To survive them we had to think fast. Reacting fast is not nearly enough as threats come in all varieties – we also have to act appropriately. As threats and opportunities (let’s not forget opportunities – they are quite important as well) may come at any time and in many forms, a response developed through evolution alone would be long out of date.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Where is the self that wills?

      • Alan says:

        I’m pretty sure that view is reversed. The will is a foundational feature of brains in anything at least as complex as an insect. It is the evolved technique for adapting an animal to an environment that has not been stable enough for a determined response architecture to evolve to function in. The self appears to me to be a product of a well-functioning brain, at least in humans. Will produces self, not the other way around.

  5. Sam Harris emphatically makes the case that free will is an illusion (, that we are expressions of chemistry – an emergent property of the unthinking universe. The universe’s nature is causal, and because that causality cannot interrupted, there has never been and can be no space for will. The thought I have to put into typing these words or reading them is only possible inside a bubble of ignorance…

    But for me it begs the question: what would we know if we knew? Can we exclude the possibility of truly ‘interrupting ourselves’ in a meaningful sense?

    • Alan says:

      Over a hundred years ago, quantum mechanics destroyed the myth of a deterministic universe.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        It doesn’t help free will because quantum mechanics is probabilistic. In other words, whether an atom swerves left or right is fifty-fifty in the famous double-slit experiment. Free will that is not interfering with determinism must then be free will interfering with probability functions. It can’t just follow determinism or indeterminacy. It has to do something (be a ghost interfering with the Newtonian or quantum machine).


      • Alan says:

        I agree that the two are independent – I was challenging the Harris argument. It was the randomness in nature (not the universe at large) that favored the evolution of will as I noted above.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      You are right that there will always be gaps in observation in which we cannot exclude the logical possibility that a spook (ourselves, an angel, or God) has pushed an atom in one direction rather than another when we were not looking or detecting. There are lots of atoms in the universe that could be nudged this way or that by non-physical minds unbeknownst to us. But now we’re in the realm of the supernatural, and all bets are then off.

      Yet I don’t know how you arrive at free will without dualism of some sort (mind or spirit “stuff” interacting with material stuff in some influencing manner).

      Atheism has the problem of how matter evokes mind. Theism has the problem of how mind interacts with matter.

      My favorite saying in the ancient Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is this: “If mind creates matter, it is a wonder. If matter creates mind, it is a greater wonder.”


      • Alan says:

        To borrow from Sam Harris: we are expressions of chemistry. No gods, no spirits and in general, no atoms nudged by non-human minds. The existence or non-existence of God or gods will not be found in the chemical process of the brain. Whatever role such entities may have played in the ultimate design, at this point it simply works that way. Look at another organ, say your heart. Do you stay up nights worrying about the spooks and spirits necessary to keep it beating? Absurd. Your heart keeps beating without spirits, you brain keeps thinking without spirits. Both are part of the chemical process that is us. Calling any of it an illusion simplifies nothing, answers nothing because we are still aware of the illusion.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        That heart analogy is a good one, but not perfect. We know how a heart can pump blood. We haven’t a clue how matter can evoke our experience of mind (or how that mind might be interacting with or influencing matter).


      • Alan says:

        Mystics and meditators, as you probably know, have demonstrated remarkable control over their heart rate. Hearts are muscles. Muscles are controlled by neurons. Brains are made of neurons. Mind over matter works – every time your heart beats.

        Let’s start with brains, and leave minds for later. Brains have two basic responsibilities (in conjunction with their over-arching responsibility to keep us alive): managing our muscles and managing our sensory organs. We have well developed models of how our sensory organs work (matter to brain) and how our muscles work (brain to matter). This has nothing to do with the question of will, which is (very likely) internal to the brain. Just as mind is.

        The only valid question I see on the table is: Does the output of the brain reflect biologically determined responses or responses that reflect a degree of independence from biology. My stock example is language (see also Stephen’s question above: ‘How can I argue with someone who isn’t in control of their argument?’). A deterministic creature could never use something remotely approaching human language where virtually every sentence ever uttered by every human who ever lived is unique. And nearly all of those were comprehended by another.

  6. adambnoel says:

    My personal thoughts on the matter is that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be solved and that this problem will likely impact our ability to understand our own cognition in weird ways. My question is… if we are merely witnessing a zombie movie then why are we witnessing a zombie movie itself? It seems like a computationally expensive function to evolve and yet all life seems to exhibit some degree of the phenomena called consciousness. For us we also experience self-consciousness which I suspect is a complicated phenomena which we use to order the world but the question is then why do we need a model if such a model is useless (Zombie movie outcome will be the same anyway).

    Now if there is a way for consciousness to interact with the model of the world (through qualitative experience) then it would make sense to a certain degree why consciousness was selected for in evolution. The ability to make decisions based on evaluating qualitative inputs would be a useful tool (If such a tool is possible I do not know) and this evaluation of qualitative inputs would be what we consider free will. This would make sense from an evolutionary perspective. (ignoring the fact that even if consciousness has an evolutionary function it still does not resolve the hard problem)

    Where does Libet fit into this? Most of Libet’s experiments suggest there is a delay in processing but at the same time this delay seems to be in trivial processes. If you had to make decisions on every action you take your consciousness would be flooded with trivial information. I suspect the stronger the qualitative stimuli the more important the information to be evaluated. In such a case Libet’s experiment makes sense. The response is relatively trivial and should not be taken as evidence against what we perceive as free will. If free will exists would it let us stop breathing? Would it allow us to suppress reflexes? I doubt it. I suspect free will’s functionality comes in allowing evaluation of non-reflexive choices. (If it exists)

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Lots of good points. I like your zombie question about expense. From an evolutionary point of view, consciousness better be contributing to something (and not just tagging along for the ride). Consciousness could, however, be what Stephen Gould calls a “spandrel” in evolution (a part of the architecture that looks nice and elegant but is not actually bearing any of the building’s weight, etc.). In other words, consciousness could be a pure accident or artifact of other evolved processes (in which case the atheist universe is quite absurd and the possibility of a theist universe returns into play).

      For atheist “free will” matter must evoke mind AND mind must then somehow influence matter. For theist free will mind (the mind of God) must somehow create matter AND matter must then be capable of interacting with (human and angelic) minds. In either case, free will brings us to seemingly intractable questions.

      I wonder if Hinduism or Buddhism might have some suggestive ways out of the mind-matter impasse.


  7. Alan says:

    By apropos coincidence, I found this link in my in-box today:
    This paper: HOW DOES BRAIN SIZE MATTER? Commentary on Skoyles on Brain-Expertise by D. S. Webster and K. Richardson, discusses why big brains work for us: Very complex analysis of situations to improve predictions. This does not describe a deterministic process.
    Random clips from the paper:
    12. As Lee (1979, 1984: 47) cited by Skoyles (par., 36), explains, “the !Kung hunter can deduce many kinds of information about an animal…the species…is identified by the shape of hoof print and by dung or scat…and any 12 year old can accurately reproduce in the sand the prints of a dozen species. The size or age of an animal correlates directly with the size of its print. An old or infirm animal may be distinguished by a halting gait or uneven stride length. Evidence of crippling is eagerly sought and is discerned when one hoof print is deeper than others.”
    13. Understanding an animal’s daily habits along with the type of infill in the hoof print helps to determine how long it has been since it passed. Thus, what the !Kung rely upon is the nesting of covariant information in the form of the variable values of size, depth, infill of hoof print, zig-zaging hoof prints, and the relative concentration of hoof prints. Elsewhere (e.g., Richardson & Webster, 1996a), we describe this type of nesting of variable values as hyperstructural, resulting in the enhancement of predictive judgements in complex environments. To take another of Skoyles’s examples of expertise, that of expert gamblers (par. 35), the significance of the findings from racetrack betting experts is that values of up to eleven variables were not combined additively, but integrated across as many as seven levels of interaction. This means that the covariation between two variables (e.g., the probability of winning and jockey weight) is conditioned by the values of another variable (e.g., the state of the course), and this conditioning is itself conditioned by values of yet another variable (and so on, up to seven variables “deep”).
    14. With regard to implicit learning, studies have shown that verbal descriptions of relations acquired are confounded, because those relations are deeper than linear bivariate correlations. Thus Reber (1989: 219) notes that implicit learning produces a knowledge base that is “abstract and representative of the structure of the environment,” and is induced from “the complex covariations among events that characterize the environment.”

  8. Richard Kloostra says:

    The other day I looked at a spider building a web as I had this epiphany. It is completely logical that the spider has free will. Without his creative free will he would not have been able to evolve into having a body that can produce silk sticky wires, mount these wires into a nearly invisible web, with the goal to catch these flying beings and have lunch. I have yet to see my laptop clean itself, or grow a larger batterypack. The free will we are all looking for is called life.

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