The universe has many mysteries, but the question of free will seems to stand above the rest, encompassing other profound questions into a singular web: the hard problem of consciousness, the search for a unifying theory of physics, and the morality of human behavior. Are we truly in control of our destinies? Do we have agency in our decision-making? When a situation arises in our lives, can we choose between two or more different outcomes?
Or is the life we live just a path preordained by forces beyond our control.
With our current knowledge of the world, there is no way to know the answer to this question. Instead, I've organized this topic through the lens of four domains, aiming to show that the idea of free will is inconceivable when analyzing how they combine to impact a human mind.
Although this argument may be existentially distressing, I reckon it has the power to generate a more positive and empathetic civilization. Now let's dive into each domain in-depth, and explore the implications of each.
When the Big Bang created our universe 13.8 billion years ago, it set in motion the history of its future. Every atom had a plan, a path it would take through the universe, predetermined by the laws established at the moment of universal birth. This idea is called determinism, which explains how the cosmos runs on the course set forth by its initial inputs, the laws of nature. All effects lead back to the primary cause.
Although determinism is not a consensus in the scientific community, it remains a fundamental and acceptable way of describing the universe at large. In many debates on free will, quantum mechanics, the science of the smallest particles, is used to defend our freedom. In Q.M., Schrödinger’s Equation describes the wave function, which essentially lays out the probabilities for how particles will behave. Unfortunately, we still don't know why the wave function "collapses" into a specific value upon measurement. Some use this to make room for free will, but one of the more popular solutions to this problem brings us back into the world of determinism.
The Many Worlds Theory, created by Hugh Everett, aims to remove Q.M.'s fuzziness by stipulating that the wave function's collapse is not the full picture of reality. In actuality, every probability in the wave function becomes a reality, meaning that every possible action you can take becomes real in a parallel universe. Thus, there is no free will; every one of your choices occurs in one universe or another. Although the MWT is sometimes dismissed for its multiversal conclusions, more and more scientists are beginning to accept it, as described by the physicist Sean Carroll.
Another way of showcasing the universe's determinism is through Einstein's theory of relativity, which helps lead to the idea of the "block universe." In this theory, "the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” All of your moments, such as blowing out your fifth birthday candle, graduating college, or lying on your deathbed, exist at the same time. The concept of "now" is limited to our cognition—out there in the cosmos, time is relative. If our future is now, then how can we have free will?
Physics remains a vast enterprise that only grows as new theories are added to the table. The question of determinism remains fiercely debated but remains a logical way of looking at the universe at large. And even if one day it's disproven, well, this story on the breakdown of free will has only just begun.
Unless you believe in a spiritual soul, the brain is the master behind everything you do. Suppose we believe the previous section on physics holds its ground; in that case, we can say all the atoms in your brain were always going to be yours, with a deterministic path forward. But let's put that aside and discuss the specific operations of the brain itself, the trillions of firing synapses that tell your mind and body what to do next. In his book Free Will, Sam Harris writes,
"The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it." (Free Will, p. 8)
Let's examine this for a moment. It means that the layer underneath your consciousness, your brain's unconscious machinery, controls everything you do as a human being. Your consciousness, the magical dust of experience and sentience, the thing that seemingly gives us the power to make decisions and have free will, is completely and utterly controlled by the chemistry of your brain. No matter what theory of consciousness you subscribe to, if you're in the materialist camp, then you believe consciousness emerges from underlying brain processes. In his book Incognito, the neuroscientist David Eagleman says this in another way:
"As far as we can tell, all activity in the brain is driven by other activity in the brain, in a vastly complex interconnected network. For better or worse, this seems to leave no room for anything other than neural activity—that is, no room for a ghost in the machine." (Incognito, p. 166)
To clarify this point, let's look at two striking examples in Incognito, showing how drastically our lives can turn by neurons beyond our control. Eagleman describes the story of Kenneth Parks, a man who murdered his mother in law and attacked his father in law while sleepwalking, and Charles Whitman, the Texas tower murderer who killed 16 people, and yet, upon autopsy, was found to have a tumor.
These examples are not only extremely disturbing, but they also point at an alarming truth—we are not in control.
Harris and Eagleman both write about the classic experiment by Benjamin Libet that undermines our preconceived notions of free will. In the experiment, researchers asked people to move while wearing an EEG device, also asking them to notate when they consciously decided to do so. The scientists found that their device could predict when a person would move milliseconds before the subject “consciously decided.” This study is used to show that you did not choose to move when you did; you only become aware of it in your mind after it was already decided.
Some have criticized the study, but what counter-arguments fail to convince is that even if the brain signal is not tied to a specific movement and more of a random pattern, that doesn't leave room for free will. As Harris says:
"Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility." (Free Will, p. 28).
And even if the person's conscious recording of a decision and the neuronal actions occur simultaneously—it remains true from a materialistic perspective that the conscious thought arose due to brain functioning, which as we discussed above, is beyond our control. The saving grace for free will proponents might be the idea of emergence, with free will appearing as a sum greater than its parts, but this argument requires further debate.
The brain is the most powerful thing known in the universe, which actually makes it all the more believable that it is running the show. As Schopenhauer so aptly put it:
"A person can do as they will, but not will as they will."
The story of biological determinism doesn't end with the brain; it only strengthens when we add a chapter on genetics. Out of all the genetic combinations that could've been you, the one that did is reading these words on your screen. The odds were not in your favor, but you prevailed. Alas, this is another notch in the belt against free will. Take these odds, and now add it down your entire lineage, each combination leading to the next, to give you your specific DNA, which guides the foundation of who you are as an individual. From a predisposition of intelligence to certain diseases, your genetics are inherent to the nature of your being. One twist of fate over thousands of years, and you wouldn't be you.
Like the tumor example in the brain, Eagleman uses another illustrative example to show just how powerful genes can be on your free will. A mutation in one gene predisposes someone to Huntington's disease, which leads to a personality change later in life that includes "…aggressiveness, hypersexuality, impulsive behavior, and disregard for social norms…" (Incognito, p. 208). Strong correlations between genes and behavior can be found almost anywhere you look, consider the fact that having a Y chromosome makes you 882% more likely to commit a violent crime. (Incognito, p. 158).
As Richard Dawkins wrote about in his book The Selfish Gene, we are tools used to propagate our genes' survival through time. We are required, by nature, to find a mate and extend the line of our genes. Parenthood is a predetermined fate that most humans partake in, one that limits the freedom of an individual, adding new responsibilities and behaviors that prevent others. That is not to say this is a negative, parenthood is considered the gift of life, but it does not change the fact that this puts a limit on our free will as individuals.
Connected to the free will restrictions imposed by the brain and genetics are those posed by evolutionary psychology. Many scientists are using our early ancestors' behaviors to explain why we do certain things in modern society. Violence, social bonding, relationships, all of these are inherent to being a human; there is no way to escape this because it is baked into our evolutionary past, hardcoded into our genes and brains. The overall psychological impact on free will can't be overstated. Whether it's a disease like addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or just the use of cognitive biases, everyone encounters some aspect of the mind that limits their freedom. When talking about a drug like cocaine, Eagleman says:
"By plugging into the dopamine system, cocaine and its cousins commandeer the reward system, telling the brain that this is the best possible thing that could be happening. The ancient circuits are hijacked." (Incognito, p. 205).
Consider the example of OCD. The disease literally forces people to take some actions in the world, such as washing their hands or checking items, in order to drive away irrational thoughts—thoughts they don't wish they had—away. For those with OCD, like myself, the idea of free will being an illusion is comprehensible because we viscerally understand the lack of control we can feel from our own thoughts.
So your brain, genetics, and behaviors of ancestors thousands of years ago all limit your freedom. Or do you still feel free?
Well then, let's keep going.
The age-old question, nature v.s nurture, might be a fun debate, but it's clear that we don't need to make a decision on which is more impactful, as they both play a vital role in the development of human life, and thus have significant relevance on our discussion of free will.
Where we are born, who our parents are, what communities they are involved in, these all play a crucial role in the freedom one has in life. Those born in some places live a life where they must fight to put food on their plate, struggling to survive, while others are lavished in penthouses and get everything they could ask for. One's country is a major force on their life, with the politics, economy, and centuries of historical momentum conspiring to pre-select the opportunities one has available to them. The World Happiness Report is one way to quantify this; for example, Denmark's residents rank their happiness as an average of 7.6 on a scale of 10, while the U.S. is at 6.9. Many countries fall below 5, such as India.
The history of the United States gives us another devastating example of how a country can diminish one's free will. If you were Black in our country's founding years, you literally had no freedom of will due to the bondage of slavery. The lasting effects of this can still be felt to this day, with the Black community experiencing inequality in criminal justice, income opportunities, healthcare, education, and more, all of which continue to restrict free will.
Besides your country, many other factors can influence a growing human. As a baby and child, we have no choice in what we can do; our environment and guardians guide everything. We start our lives with an extreme restriction on free will, for a good reason, as our brains aren't developed and we can't fend for ourselves. Yet, often this means we are stuck and can't progress out of the situations we find ourselves in, as these environmental factors lay an imprint on our biology that often becomes hard to overturn.
In Aeon Magazine, Douglas Starr overviews the history of linking biological traits to criminals, which at one point led down the dangerous road of eugenics, but is now coming back to the forefront due to complex analysis showing a relationship between one's genes, brain, and the environment. Although these elements don't guarantee one will become a criminal, it's clear that these factors can provide some explanation. Starr writes:
"The new science of epigenetics proposes an interaction between environment and heredity, in which environmental factors (such as childhood abuse) can affect the expression of genes. In other words, the nature-nurture division that scientists have been arguing about for more than a century is narrowing, and might someday disappear. Genes and brain structure do not represent a simple on-off switch that determines a person's behaviour but, as some studies show, they can indicate a vulnerability."
Another essay in Aeon clarifies this point by looking at how childhood trauma can impact someone's life. In it, Professor Stephen R. Gould references a study of 13,000 people, which found that people with six or more "adverse childhood experiences" were expected to live twenty years shorter than those without any. It's mind-bogglingly distributing, that the moments of your childhood when you have no control can restrict your will so much by causing lasting psychological damage, closing your future much sooner than it should.
The interplay of societal impacts and biology is a force to be reckoned with. How much it impacts one's free will remains up for debate, but it's undeniable that there is a sizable predisposition to certain futures created by these forces.
The final domain removing our free will is the technological ecosystem we've created over the last few years. The advent of algorithms, particularly as experienced on the internet, smartphones, and social media platforms, have made a massive amount of behavioral modifications to our lifestyles, in many senses restricting our free will. For example, social media locks you into its grasp through the feedback loop of "dopamine hits." These platforms twist into your brain's chemical reward systems, much like drugs. Analyze the screen time on your phone, and ask yourself if you really want to be spending so many hours "doom scrolling."
A lot has been said about the influence of social media sites like Facebook and YouTube on our behaviors since the idea entered the popular consciousness after the social disinformation campaign of the 2016 U.S. election and the surge of polarization on social platforms since. These sites use your data to feed you content that reinforces your viewpoints, and often this information can be dangerous due to its antithesis to the truth. This is not to say that these technologies don't do amazing things in empowering our freedom, as it gives us a plethora of tools and information to expand our capabilities as a species. The issue is that for many, these platforms are destructive, poisoning the mind with a false perception of reality, pushing them into patterns of behavior that damage their livelihoods. An essay I linked to in the past by the Atlantic's Adrienne Lafrance brilliantly sums up the dangers of Facebook and how it erodes many people's freedom of will.
The impact of algorithms on your free will is not just limited to social media, though. They're used in surveillance, criminal justice, media, and everything in between. Big Brother isn't just watching you; he is actively controlling you. And it's only going to get worse.
Physics. Biology. Society. Technology. These four factors work together to leave very little room for the idea of human free will. From metaphysical arguments to practical debates on the impact of technology on society, it's clear that not everything is in our control.
Now, this would seem to be terrifying. Awful news, making life meaningless, right? Not necessarily. Many people believe that the idea of us not having free will is extremely dangerous, that it is a "necessary lie" we must tell ourselves to ensure society functions because if we do not have free choice, then we have no personal responsibility. Criminals cannot be held responsible for their crimes. Success stories become twists of fate. Nobody deserves anything. Luckily for us, this does not have to be the case. Consider Sam Harris, who writes:
"Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck." (Free Will, p. 45)
Consider the story of Kenneth Parker one more time. If you were sitting on a jury and were provided with undeniable evidence that he was sleepwalking, would you find him guilty of his crime? Well, the jury of his case found him innocent.
Eagleman explains how this understanding of free will can actually lead to a more empathetic society. He says:
"…a forward-thinking legal system will parlay biological understanding into customized rehabilitation, viewing criminal behavior the way we understand other such medical conditions as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and depression—conditions that now allow the seeking and giving of help." (Incognito, p. 180)
Eagleman does not suggest that those who are dangerous to society not be imprisoned, but that for as many cases as we can, we try to understand the factors that led to their crimes and then use science to rehabilitate as many as we can.
It's difficult to believe that not only do we not have free will, but also that given this, we don't have personal responsibility for actions that are deemed unethical to society. Even after writing this, I'm not sure if I can stomach it myself. Yet, if we are committed to truth and equality, it remains important to consider these ideas.
But then again, you don't have a choice, do you?
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