Free will: to have, or not to have, that is the question

today2020.06.03. 491


Quarter of a century. Makes a girl think….

Being born in a traditional, well-educated family came with certain social expectations, although I’ve always felt free to do whatever I wanted. Then, suddenly, in autumn last year I had a quarter-life crisis. I was worried that I’m running out of time to find the job I liked before I have to get married and have children – because I thought, let’s face it, kids are going to put an end to that – and what about fun adventures like living overseas again?
Regardless of how independent I’ve always thought I am, this conservative blue-print was buried deep somewhere inside my brain and even though I don’t believe in it at all, I still feel the pressure like a patriarchate monster breathing down my neck. If I am free to choose to do whatever I want, why do I feel like I might make decisions which aren’t really mine? This odd conflict made me curious to find out why I felt like a victim of my own thoughts, which led me to the following debate:

Do we have free will? ​

When I started my research on this topic, I challenged my friends with this question and they all came to the same conclusion: I could not have possibly picked a more interesting yet frustrating topic because free will means something slightly different to everyone. Intuitively we all want to say yes, free will exists but how does one define this notion? Trying to wrap my head around this elusive concept just left me with a Gordian knot. I was fascinated by it, an elementary question about existence, relevant to all people, debated in all kinds of disciplines. But I realised the answer “Well, I sort of feel like I can make a decision freely, I guess” would not sufficiently hold up in an argument.
If you ask a neuroscientist whether we have free will, the answer is probably a blunt no. But before you feel like your day is ruined, I’ll tell you why you should not accept this answer so easily. Although science claims that free will does not exist, free will is not what you think it is – and that is also the solution to the argument this question fuels amongst scientists and philosophers in the field.  But before we get knee-deep into this mess, we need to consider a few other things.

Mind-body problem

At this point, science disagrees with a philosophical concept called “body-mind-dualism”, which categorises mental phenomena as non-physical (a separate entity from the body). However, should free will exist, it must be part of our biological brain. It is neither a cloud floating above our heads, nor a tiny creature, a homunculus (Robert Sapolsky, “Behave”) living in our minds, separating between “hormonal controlled” and “free-willed” decisions. The mind and thus free will (whatever it is, or is not) are the result of a biological mass with electrical impulses. As the computer screen translates ones and zeros into spots of light resulting in shiny pictures visible to our eye, the brain translates the action potentials of neurons into thoughts, emotions and sensations. It turns quantum physics into “images” in our conscious mind, which enables us to interact with the world. ​

Free will is an illusion

While philosophers have racked their brains over the existence of free will since antiquity, neuroscience brought a new twist into the debate in the last decade: free will, in the common sense, does not exist. Experiencing that you are the conscious author of your own thoughts is a cognitive illusion – a hoax in your brain. The famous “Libet’s experiment” conducted in 1983 was the first to contribute with an empirical base for this statement. While they measured the real-time brain activity, the participants had to flex either the left or right wrist and report the exact time when they made their decision. Incredibly enough, the scientists were able to predict a person’s conscious intention about 500 ms before the person themselves became aware of it. They examined the “readiness potential”, a brain signal discovered in earlier research which indicates voluntary actions, that built up in the brain before the participant decided which wrist to move and, only after it reached a certain threshold, they became aware of their own choice. This suggests that decisions are made in our brains way before we consciously formulate them in our minds, which rules out consciousness as the origin of our decision-making. Instead, consciousness is more of a narrative “voice” in the brain, acknowledging bodily movements, sometimes after it has already reacted. When a glass falls out of the cupboard, I can catch it before I decide to do so.
But what about “rethinking”? I can think about a matter over and over again, and reconsider a decision that I have taken. Is that free will? At least I am free to choose pizza over pasta, nothing is messing this up, it is my decision. As it turns out, that was a very naïve thought of mine.  ​

You are special but that is not your fault

Our brain developed to become a fortune telling machine: it gathers familiar clues from our past, generalise them, and applies them in new situations. It is constantly trying to predict the future to cope with ever-changing contexts without being completely lost. Is this predictive coding perfect? No, otherwise optical illusions wouldn’t work. Is it good enough? Definitely! We will always identify a barking creature with fur and paws wearing a collar as a dog, even though we don’t know every breed and some might not look like a “typical” dog nowadays (sneezes *chihuahuas*) – bless you!
But this also means that our perception is constrained by our past and every thought, decision, and resulting behaviour are determined by preceding events. This theory is called determinism. It states that who you are today and how you behave have never really been under your control. You are a special little snowflake, let no one ever tell you differently. However, what defines you as an individual is probably an interaction of external factors, starting with the combination of your genes and the environment you were born into, to every aspect of your upbringing and experiences you have been exposed to. So, when you choose pizza over pasta, it’s probably because of the advertisement you saw the day before or the rap song you heard with lyrics about juicy round shapes…The point is, reaching the start of a chain of reasons, explaining why you chose what, might be impossible.

Mens sana in corpore sano – healthy mind in a healthy body

The physical condition of your brain and its network also influence your long term and on the spot decision-making, which we mostly realise as soon as something is not doing as it should. People with Tourette syndrome are born with a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in unwanted behaviour, such as motor or vocal tics. Even though they often feel a premonitory urge to give in on the tics, they can only temporarily suppress it – making it an “involuntary” behaviour beyond either instant or conscious control.
But nuance imbalances, such as hormone level changes in the body, can already put a switch to a situation. Have you ever been nasty to someone without an apparent reason? And have you realised after a snack how much you overreacted because you were “hangry” (angry because of being hungry)? Or have you drunk texted anyone, which seemed to be a great idea you came up with all by yourself – something your sober self widely disagreed with the next day, blaming the alcohol, again.

Free will has an image problem

So here’s the catch: if our thoughts are determined by a bunch of factors beyond our control (determinism), consciousness can’t be the origin of free will.  For people like Sam Harris, American neuroscientist and philosopher, this calls for a logical consequence: we are not responsible for our actions. In his opinion, everyone, including criminals, should be viewed as the victim of their circumstances. That is why he pledges that there is a need to adapt our view on moral responsibility accordingly, by getting rid of the concept of guilt and vengeance which the justice system is built on. This is an extreme standing point but there are other ways to put it, it is all a matter of interpretation. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, drew a different conclusion from determinism, which I personally can relate to the most. Instead of tossing free will completely, we need to give room for a new perspective on the subject, like we did with planets. Everything circulating around the sun used to be called a planet. Due to new definitions, Pluto is not a planet anymore, but we do not deny its existence altogether. Dennett is a supporter of compatibilism, a concept in which determinism and free will are compatible.
Free will, he proposes, does not equal the full control of our thoughts and behaviour, it lays in the choice of action that changes future outcomes. Tracing back decision processes and reflecting on our intention enable us to actively apply these past experiences to present decisions. This partial control – influencing future with present decisions – also gives reason to believe we are still responsible for our actions, just not to the extent we everyday folks might think.

What to draw from all of this?

Even if you feel uneasy with fully giving up on the idea of free will, there is a comforting perspective to consider: the chance to shift towards a less egocentric view on the world. That leaves room for more empathy and compassion with yourself, and with others. If we start taking all the external factors into account, we can take a person’s behaviour less personal. Instead of judging, we could accept that there are things beyond their control we do not know about. So instead of dwelling on a vague notion of free will, I decided to use these scientific insights to adapt a more laid-back attitude when coping with my quarter-life crisis or even just my daily thoughts.

If you are interested in similar brain-related topics, you must join us at the Brainstorms Festival in March. Listen to talks from leading neuroscientists, take part in discussions, and network with like-minded people from around the world.


  1. Brass, M., Furstenberg, A., & Mele, A. R. (2019). Why neuroscience does not disprove free will. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 
  2. Dehaene, S. (2014). Consciousness and the brain: Deciphering how the brain codes our thoughts. Penguin. 
  3. Dennett, D. C. (2014). Reflections on Free Will: a review by Daniel C. Dennett. SamHarris. org. 
  4. Lavazza, A. (2016). Free will and neuroscience: from explaining freedom away to new ways of operationalizing and measuring it. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, 262. 
  5. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett Debate Free Will​
  6. Sam Harris Podcast Waking up: Interview with Robert Sapolsky Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin.

Written by: Donata von Bistram

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