We are prisoners in our own minds. Science hasn't been kind to free will. All the evidence points to our brains being machines governed by the laws of nature and we're just along for the ride. Despite this, the illusion of free will is very strong...and probably necessary

We are prisoners in our own minds. Science hasn't been kind to free will. All the evidence points to our brains being machines governed by the laws of nature and we're just along for the ride. Despite this, the illusion of free will is very strong...and probably necessary

There’s No Free Will – But why the Resistance?

It’s increasingly clear that “free will” as traditionally understood is an illusion. There are conflicting definitions of what free will means but for most, it’s in the context of freedom from natural laws. In other words the popular notion of exercising free will is that our choices are not impacted in any way by science – at least when we deliberately set out to make them. That our conscious choices are “first movers”. That we have the power to select A or B in a way that is totally determined by “us” and us alone. After all, that’s where the “free” comes from right? As in not bound.

So far, the science hasn’t been encouraging for free will. Our thoughts are generated by the brain which is a physical machine obeying the laws of nature and physics. It follows that our thoughts also obey the laws of nature. There’s no “place” for true free will as far as we know. It seems however, that there’s been a lot of resistance to this idea. I’ve had long arguments with people who continue to cling to the notion of free will against all available evidence. The puzzling aspect is not just the arguments themselves, but the underlying tone of hostility which should be missing in a purely academic argument. Here are some of the arguments put forward by the proponents of free will.

Quantum Mechanics

This is easily the biggest weapon in the arsenal of the free advocates. It seems to be particularly attractive because quantum mechanics defies “common sense” and most importantly, is non deterministic. The idea broadly goes that nature itself isn’t fully determined, so it’s possible for the brain and consequently thoughts to be non determined as well. That since quantum mechanics is unpredictable, this allows for an outlet for free will to emerge. This is a wrong tack for several reasons.

First, we have no reason to believe that quantum effects play a role in brain functions. To the best of our knowledge, the brain acts in a completely classical manner and no quantum effects have been observed in any manner so far. Processes like synaptic chemical transmissions appear to follow the same boring laws of traditional physics. Our brains are simply too slow and hot for quantum effects to play a significant role.

Second, even if quantum mechanics had anything to do with brain processes (and this is a huge IF), it doesn’t bode well for free will either. Quantum effects are inherently probabilistically random – which means there are hard statistical limits on the possible outcomes of a particular quantum process. There’s no escaping that randomness is not what we associate with free will at all. We think of free will in terms of having control over our choices. Not free will being random!

Randomness is as destructive to free will as determinism. Quantum mechanics is an extremely poor cover for free will to hide behind. Perhaps even worse than regular determinism!

Science can’t answer everything

The argument goes like this “There are many things science can’t answer such as consciousness. So don’t pretend as if science disproves the existence of free will”.

The objection that science can’t answer everything is like complaining that your car requires a power source to operate, but then offering the flying carpet as the alternative means of transportation.

This is true. Science hasn’t disproved the existence of free will. But neither has it disproved the existence of Santa Claus, fairies, leprechauns, unicorns, and the bogeyman. Pointing to the current limits of science and then using that as an argument brings to mind this comment on Google+ (it’s private so I can’t share the link) on the right:

The fact is that postulating the existence of free will as commonly understood requires a lot more explaining. Is there a “soul” making the choice? Is it independent of the brain? If so, where does it “sit”? How is it created/destroyed? How does one detect it etc . Whereas the no-freewill camp doesn’t need to provide any additional explanation. Our brains and thoughts are determined by the laws of nature, end of story. In other words, free will introduces additional unnecessary variables to explain the same phenomena and is therefore an untenable scientific theory.


Yet another approach says that human reactions are inherently unpredictable and this proves the existence of free will. But there are millions of unpredictable systems in nature – like the weather for example! No one has yet said that the weather has free will. It’s pretty much accepted that the weather is governed by natural laws even though we don’t (and may never) have the computational power to predict it.

The outcome of a quantum event like a decaying radioactive nucleus is also unpredictable. Inherently unpredictable in fact! Yet, no one says that the decaying nucleus has free will. The notion of free will is freedom from natural laws neither random, not probabilistic, nor deterministic. Being unpredictable means nothing and does not make any progress towards proving the existence of free will.


This is not really an argument, but an exposition on the consequences of having no free will. People worry that without free will how can justice be done? How can you find a person guilty if they had no choice in their actions, or their actions were randomly determined by the laws of nature? It says free will can’t exist because otherwise our carefully constructed social systems are meaningless.

But that’s the bitter truth we have to swallow. It matters not what the consequences of the truth are. If it’s any consolation, our society and the set of laws is based on the illusion of free will. We might not actually possess it, but we have to carry on pretending as if we do. And this is an illusion easily enforced by our ego and our consciousness. I might intellectually realize I have no free will, but I don’t feel it. This is a good thing. It’s impossible to function properly without that illusion.

But it is an illusion.

While it’s true that science doesn’t know everything and one day we might find the existence of true free will, the fact remains that the current state of science renders it completely untenable. Now nothing is stopping us from believing something unsupported by science. A person is perfectly at liberty to believe in the existence of fairies or Zeus. But most of us don’t lend credence to theories unsupported by science. So why these double standards when it comes to free will? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and it seems to me that the claim that free will exists is an extraordinary one. And we have no evidence of it – let alone extraordinary evidence.

I can only conclude that there’s some other underlying emotional reason blocking people from dispassionately junking the idea of free will. Of course, any notion of religion and punishment/reward goes for a toss if you assume that people are “just” machines – deterministic or random. So there’s probably a vested interested in protecting that belief system. Also, I suppose it’s a bit of a blow to one’s ego to think that we’re not really in control of ourselves. The notion of free will is so important to our everyday life that junking the idea isn’t easy for most people when it conflicts when strongly held world views.


  1. Cibu Johny says:

    Difficult to read from a mobile phone. leave a reply is hiding everything.

  2. csn says:

    this is an excellent post… reminds me of a sequence in richard linklater’s film waking life which also deals with the concept of free will… they draw parallels between religion and classical physics… whether we accept a religious worldview in which
    everything happens according to god’s plan or according to the basic laws of physics where the fundamental conditions
    were setup at the big bang and everything else has continued to work like a perpetual motion system which is also expanding. similarly quantum theory doesn’t offer a better explanation, not only because of the points you’ve raised but also because there shouldn’t be any difference between how thoughts are formed and any other process because quantum mechanics should effect those as well… meaning that an inanimate stone should be able to exercise free will as well.(as i only have a rudimentary understanding of quantum physics, my previous inferences are probably wrong in which case i would appreciate any corrections).
    in some ways, advocating free will seems to be similar in some ways to teleological thinking… ascribing conscious thought to human action and ascribing final cause and purpose to natural processes…

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to csn
      It’s true that all machines have quantum mechanics, I’m willing to accept that there are some where quantum effects actually affect the outcome. My point is that even then, it’s not “free will”!

      The issue of free will seems very emotive to some.

      • csn says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        ‘It’s true that all machines have quantum mechanics, I’m willing to accept that there are some where quantum effects actually affect the outcome. My point is that even then, it’s not “free will”!’
        but if we assume that your hypothesis is true(that while all organisms or machines have quantum mechanics, only some cases will experience any effect on the outcome) can’t we say that the particles which work on a probabilistic framework are actually exercising free will so as to make choices that are not based on specific physical laws(like the scenario where there is a finite probability that a particle can escape a potential energy well).
        in which case, we can say that these particles are agents of free will and that their effects are only felt on the outcome of certain systems, like human beings or AI… of course this is all conjecture on my part and i seriously doubt that i have the tools to answer or even fully comprehend this question
        ‘The issue of free will seems very emotive to some.’
        this is probably because we’re so used to the concept. in common practice the burden of proof falls on the one making the assertion. by this logic, the person who says that free will exists must be the one who has to provide proof of free will(insofar as such proof can be valid). however it has become such a common part of our outlook that those who deny it’s existence are the one who are asked to prove it. to accept that all our choices are a predetermined function or are completely random would render our entire existence meaningless.

      • bhagwad says:

        In reply to csn
        I guess it comes down to how one defines free will. “Free” from what? Usually it means free from natural laws. And a probabilistic framework is still a natural law. Of course, others might change their definition of free will to something else…

  3. Love this post and //…that we’re not really in control of ourselves// is in fact my biggest comfort today.

    Just this simple understanding that let alone control, we don’t even know how we would feel or react in certain circumstances, or even why we refuse to see or understand that we are not in control (that’s a horrible thought unless it has become your sole comfort) of our own actions or thoughts.

    We are just ‘made’ a certain way, we feel the way we are programmed to feel, we act the way we are programmed to act – Aren’t we are frequently taken aback by “Now, why did I say/do that?”? How would our own actions and thoughts astonish us if we were in control of our actions and thoughts?

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Indian Homemaker
      There is something comforting no? In the final analysis we’re not really responsible for what we do. That doesn’t mean we stop sending people to jail or anything. All this is at a very “meta” level.

      Some people draw a distinction between “conscious decisions” and those that are made reflexively or automatically. They try and squeeze free will into those actions that are deliberately conscious – like whether to sit on the right chair or the left. But that’s an illusion as well as far as we know.

  4. Murali says:

    Is any Random Number Generator, really random ?
    If you drill down to details, these programs are actually deterministic or at best probabilistic. The outcome is random, not the internal-working.

    Freewill..hmm.. I have a choice on commenting on this post. I may or may not. My choice may be dependent on the pleasure-hormones that kick in my brain that want me to reply vs my delay-gratification-hormones that prevent me to reply and concentrate on work.

    Assuming non-duality of body-and-soul, there is no ‘me’ outside of brain. Otherwise, there should be a mini-brain within the brain to decide which hormone to win? Then how does the mini-brain decide? ‘I’ am not present at quantum-level. ‘I’ is a sum-feeling at some level of working in the brain, below which ‘I’ cease to exist. Then, is the question on free-will relevant below a certain level of detail?

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Murali
      You’re right. Below a certain level, it makes no sense to even ask the question. Just like with an instrument, it’s meaningless to talk of “music” when referring to just one string or one key. The music is a summation of all the factors working together.

  5. Makk says:

    It’s pleasure (… am I deciding to feel that…?? :)) to see somebody can really think like this too. :)

    In reality ( which I dont know is actually reality or not) we probably ( see, this word makes gateway everywhere) don’t know a lot more then we know.

  6. I have had this argument about free will many times over. Science is not complete, yet. There are large gaps in science which fails to explain things like Magic, Telepathy, etc. I have written similar posts in my blog – Yosny with the tag – Magic.

  7. bhargava says:

    If there is no free will (universe being deterministic/probabilistic with initial conditions set at big bang),

    – there is no choice not to resist.
    – there is no choice not to punish the criminals.
    – there is no need for this discussion, but no choice not to have this discussion.

  8. E.H. Munro says:

    I’m confused as to the reasons for this post. You clearly assume that you have the power to change readers’ minds, and convince them that you you lack the ability to… well, change their minds.

  9. Ken F. says:

    The idea that “our thoughts are generated by the brain” is a metaphysical assumption which, although held by an annoyingly vocal faction within the scientific community, is entirely unverified. Are you able to reference any specific studies or lines of research that you feel justify the assertion? Of course, much research has been dedicated to mapping and describing the neural correlates of conscious states, and while it is extremely beneficial to the scientific endeavor, it falls short of actually proving that consciousness is generated by the brain. Even the recent “false memory” implantation studies on mice, with the common misinterpretation that “scientists have found that memories are stored in specific collections of neurons in the brain,” don’t bring us any closer to being able to conclude that consciousness is generated by the brain. All these studies allow us to conclude is that certain memories are triggered by engaging certain neurons. Though it may seem far-fetched at first, we can’t at this point rule out the possibility that memories are simply filtered by the brain and stored elsewhere.

    • bhagwad says:

      In reply to Ken F.
      The reason why I don’t have to prove it is because it’s the “default” position given the current state of science. The alternative is that consciousness and thoughts are not generated by the brain which is absurd on the face of it given our current knowledge because it raises a lot more questions than it answers.

      This is called “Occam’s Razor” and helps us form opinions about competing theories when there’s insufficient proof of either. For example, we can’t predict the weather and we haven’t had experiments about several aspects of it. Yet we pretty much agree that it must all ultimately come down to the laws of physics. No one accuses the weather or having free will despite no evidence to the contrary.

      So the short of it is that “no free will” is the standard explanation that needs to be disproved since the alternative explanation is not compact.

      • Ken F. says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        There are several problems with claiming that your view is simply the “default position given by the current state of science.” Firstly, this is only the default position of an ideologically-driven subset of scientists who have asserted their claim so loudly and with such an air of confidence that many people (including students of science) just accept it without further investigation. The fact of the matter is that many respected scientists across a number of fields have raised serious objections to the notion that free will has been decisively refuted. Additionally, there are a number of documented phenomena that present challenges to the idea that consciousness is generated by the brain. Since falsifiable predictions have been made for both sides of the issue (with respect to both free will and the “location” of consciousness), the default position of intellectually responsible scientists should be to await further results and to not form premature conclusions.

        Since you’ve come to the conclusion that your position is self-evident and don’t seem to feel inclined to reference any actual science to justify your position, I’m going to make an educated guess as to the types of studies you’re suggesting favor the refutation of the concept of free will. Most of the so-called “decisive” evidence against free will comes from the types of experiments, originally popularized by Benjamin Libet, that involve measuring temporal discrepancies between the neural origins of bodily movements and the corresponding conscious decision to perform those actions. These discrepancies seem to provide evidence that the actions occur prior to the conscious decision. However, Libet himself has pointed out that these findings do not in any way rule out the interpretation of free will as a type of selective “veto” function that allows a person to accept or reject the impulse to act. He writes:

        “the conscious veto is a control function, different from simply becoming aware of the wish to act. There is no logical imperative in any mind-brain theory, even identity theory, that requires specific neural activity to precede and determine the nature of a conscious control function. And, there is no experimental evidence against the possibility that the control process may appear without development by prior unconscious processes.”

        A few of Libets other studies suggest the existence of a type of “presentiment” seemingly involving the backward travel of signals in time. There have been numerous other replicated studies which seem to confirm the existence of presentiment, such as those carried out in the 90s by Dean Radin at the University of Nevada. Radin is quick to point out that the equations of both classical and quantum physics are neutral with respect to the direction of time and that the belief that signals cannot travel backward in time is a philosophical one that now seems to have been refuted by at least some evidence.

        It is also difficult to ignore the growing archive of near-death-experiences in which patients are able to accurately report events that occurred in and around their hospital rooms after the complete cessation of brain function. Until recently, most of the research into such reports has been necessarily retrospective. But controlled studies within the medical community have been undergone in the last few years and a few more are currently underway. I am fully aware of the difficulties involved in the scientific investigation of reported subjective experience; but when subjective testimony accurately describes highly specific events corroborated by respected, often skeptical individuals well after the brain of the subject has ceased to function, one is led to seriously question whether how the phenomenon would be possible if consciousness is generated by the brain.

        Finally, with respect to the issue at hand, the use of Occam’s Razor to support an adherence to the materialist philosophy as a guide for future research seems inappropriate in light of the evidence that challenges that philosophy. It’s a convenient cop-out, allowing scientists (and scientific commentators) with a particular ideological agenda to cling to an outmoded belief system and to ignore a vast body of intriguing empirical evidence that could potentially lead to all sorts of new discoveries.

      • bhagwad says:

        In reply to Ken F.
        Can you show me some scientists who object to free will on a scientific basis (like in a peer reviewed paper) instead of just wishful thinking? What are these falsifiable predictions?

        Even without any experiments, the “default position” is that there is nothing outside this material world. I’m yet to see any scientist claim otherwise in an academic paper. If you can show me one, I would be highly obliged.

        In short, what is this “ideological agenda” you refer to, and what is the empirical evidence to the contrary?

      • Ken F. says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        Here’s a pretty good list of references for your perusal compiled by Dean Radin: http://deanradin.com/evidence/evidence.htm

        As he points out, the list is by no means exhaustive, but can serve as a good starting point for individuals who are curious about the scientific legitimacy of the position I’m advocating. True, there are academic papers here from some lesser known publications, but there are plenty from well known, highly cited journals.

        Here’s an interesting paper not found in that list on the phenomenon of presentiment (which strongly favors the receiver model of the brain): http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00146/abstract

      • bhagwad says:

        In reply to Ken F.
        Thanks for that list. It seems that others have commented on that link as well: http://www.amazon.com/forum/science?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=FxZ58KVEERYS5E&cdThread=Tx3V6ZMNC88WKGV

        The conclusion seems to be that the evidence is either inconclusive, out of date, or suffers from methodological inaccuracies. It’s not mainstream science. Now since regular people like you and I have neither the time, nor the inclination to laboriously go through each and ever source searching for technical inaccuracies or flaws, we need to rely on mainstream generally accepted science to get our information.

        Since mainstream science hasn’t picked this up, I can only assume there is a good reason for that.

      • Ken F. says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        Your comment is illustrative of the problem I’m trying to point out. The default assumption of so-called “mainstream” scientists when presented with evidence for psi phenomena is that there must be something wrong with the data (because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, you know). They have made up their minds in advance that such phenomena are simply impossible, so they often immediately claim that the results are inconclusive and/or assume methodological flaws, feeling no need to do the scientifically responsible thing and actually investigate the issue themselves. Instead, they do what you’re doing and “assume there’s a good reason” why the establishment hasn’t endorsed the findings. Each time a “mainstream” scientist adopts this default position, it perpetuates the misconception that the data are inaccurate or inconclusive and provides a larger support group for those who wish to dismiss the data out of hand.

        I am not a professional scientist, but I am competent enough in statistics and research methodologies to be able to investigate matters myself and to follow arguments over alleged methodological flaws. I have spent the last several years investigating this controversy in depth, and have found that in most cases in which specific methodological errors are claimed, the researchers are able to validly refute the accusations, usually finding errors in the challengers’ analyses. But since the default position has such a strong support system, those defending it are usually given the last word in mainstream publications. I have come across numerous instances of extremely well respected journals deliberately suppressing rebuttals from psi researchers (refusing to print rebuttals as well as refusing to acknowledge errors and factual inaccuracies on the part of the challengers). This would be simply unacceptable in any other area of science. It is a widespread, systemic problem that drastically diminishes the credibility and efficacy of the scientific endeavor. It undermines the basic tenets of scientific inquiry, turning it into a mere belief system held up by cherry-picked evidence.

        I’d be happy to refer you to some specific cases, but from your comment, it seems that you’re not particularly interested in actually investigating this issue yourself. That’s a perfectly fine position to take, but if you choose to do so you openly acknowledge that your position in articles like these is based on belief, not evidence.

      • bhagwad says:

        In reply to Ken F.
        But it’s true isn’t it? Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. When GR was proposed by Einstein in 1915, his claims weren’t take seriously until the spectacular demonstration during the Solar Eclipse (in Africa I think?) that confirmed gravitational lensing. For these psi claims to be spectacularly demonstrated, it’d be awesome if someone was able to win the lottery using these techniques be able to relay message during wartime without danger of interception.

        In fact, I’m willing to bet that if there was any truth to this, the military would be all over it. I believe they did have some programs that didn’t pan out. And they’re not the types to leave stones unturned.

        And yes – I openly admit that I do not form my opinions based on my own investigations since I don’t believe I (or anyone who’s not in the field) is capable of doing so competently. I can’t prove General Relativity myself since I don’t know the math yet (though I hope to one day), but I accept it because scientists say it is experimentally valid. The same is true of climate change and basically every other field in which I’m not an expert.

        In this case, it’s not blind belief, but a belief that scientists are generally honest folks who are interested in finding out the truth and won’t deliberately suppress something which goes against their belief. During the recent uncovering of the Higgs Boson, there was widespread disappointment in the scientific community because they were anticipating some data that would invalidate the current standard model. Instead, everything was in pretty boring conformity with the present framework.

        Scientists are always looking to prove themselves wrong. Compelling data that goes against the scientific grain is always tremendously exciting and there’s a nobel prize in the wings for anyone able to present a definitive theory. So I base my faith on this fact – that people become scientists in order to uncover the truth. And that the community as a whole would not shun something just because it goes against established science. In fact, that would be a reason to welcome it with open arms.

      • Ken F. says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        Thanks for your replies Bhagwad. I wish I could maintain the kind of absolute faith you have in the integrity of the entire scientific establishment. However, I feel that a serious personal investigation into the matter is likely to disappoint anybody with that belief. The evidence is clear and abundantly available, should you ever decide to look into it.

      • Ken F. says:

        In reply to bhagwad
        Also, here’s a rather long list of academic and medical professionals from accredited institutions who don’t feel that the case is closed on this issue:


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