Free Willy

(or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great Happening)

My wife and I recently had a dinner party with some close friends. It’s always great to get together, have drinks, and share summer dishes with our friends, all of whom are far better cooks than I am. At our post-dinner game of Liar’s Dice (fun game — check it out) I naturally grabbed an opportune moment to bring up the hot topic of Free Will. The ensuing conversation was far more controversial that I could have imagined and I ended up being somewhat sorry that I’d ever even mentioned it. Only one of our guests seemed willing to entertain my point of view that free will is an illusion. Given that I’m almost certain that almost all of them would consider themselves agnostics or atheists, but the idea that free will does not exist seemed completely radical and absurd to most of them, I thought I’d take a few minutes to outline my best case. I imagine that many, many people are just like my friends.

Imagine that you have an empty bucket. Into the bucket you put a variety of chemicals, let’s say water, sand, graphite, iron filings, and salt. Stir your imaginary mixture around with a wooden spoon. Would you say that the contents of your bucket obey the laws of physics as they swirl around the bucket? Most people would agree on that. Would you consider that some unknown force or free agent within the bucket, formed by the very molecules in it, is pushing the chemicals around and taking control of the mixture? Is there some “ghost in the bucket” controlling how these atoms and molecules interact?

If you’re an atheist or if you’re an agnostic who believes that science is our best understanding of how the universe works, I would ask you to consider the imaginary bucket to be the human brain. There is no doubt that the chemistry of our brains is far more complex than my crude recipe above, but the fundamentals are no different. If the contents of my skull are subject to the laws of physics, then the existence of free will is not supported by science and is as equally supported by evidence as the existence of God.

In order to believe that free will exists, then you must imagine that the brain contains a mixture and configuration of chemicals that generates a new force, unknown to science, beyond the laws of physics that actually controls the movement and interactions between the biological chemicals of our brains. Presumably, this new and mysterious force doesn’t exist in simpler mixtures like the bucket of basic elements I initially mentioned and forms only in complex biochemical mixtures when they combine in a special way or cross a certain threshold.

If the laws of physics do apply fully to our brains, then there can be no mysteriously spawned free agent “driving the bus” and the biochemical engines we call brains are no more autonomous than a crock of… random elements. If a new force called “free will” pops into existence when biochemical mixtures reach a certain configuration, mind-body dualism is our model as humans and some part of the mind is detached from its physical cage and is more like a soul, separate and uncontrolled by the laws of physics that apply to all other known energy and matter. As far as I know, science has no model for how this soul (for lack of a better word) would form or work.

Accordingly, it is possible that free will exists, in the same way that it is possible that God exists. That is to say, there is no scientific evidence or theory that supports the existence of God or of free will.

There’s no doubt that a universe without free will is an unnerving concept, though that’s no reason to reject the idea. Lack of free will means that current events, including human activities, including YOUR movements and behavior, are simply unfolding around us like weather systems. It also means that Hitler no more chose to do what he did than Gandhi chose to do what he did.

Having gone through this discussion several times, I can say that many of you are thinking something along the lines of “If there’s no free will, then…”

  • Are you crazy? Of course there’s free will!
  • Why punish anyone since there’s no free will and no one is truly responsible for any action?
  • I’m reading this essay, lifting this glass, opening this door, or flipping the bird at you with this hand and I obviously chose to do that.
  • If you’re right, then what’s the point of doing anything or holding any moral position?
  • Are you crazy? Of course there’s free will!

The criminal justice system is frequently the first thing that comes up in this discussion and I’ll start by stating that problems with human systems of governance are not reasons to believe or not believe scientific facts. Putting that aside, criminal justice systems do not exist to punish violators just for the sake of punishing — they exist to shape human behavior by communicating and demonstrating the consequences of certain actions. Additionally, they can remove poorly behaving people from the population either through imprisonment or execution (if you’re in Texas). These are critical functions of any successful society and the fact that affected people may not be responsible (in the free agent sense of the word) for their actions does not mean that they should not be punished or separated.

One of the difficult aspects of accepting that free will does not exist is that we’re wired to feel as if we are choosing to do things all the time. We feel like we are autonomous and we live our lives as if we are in control, but what feels like free will is our consciousness, a product of our complex neural system, serving as triage nurse to all of our urges and instincts. When you lift a glass in the air to demonstrate that you just chose to do that, you are acting on impulses connected to our need as complex social beings to argue, converse, debate, and learn.

A worldview that denies the existence of free will seems inherently fatalistic and that is perhaps its most troubling implication. If none of us is really choosing to do anything and everything is simply happening, then why fight for any cause, why “choose” to do anything at all? What does it matter? I don’t have a great answer and it is something I struggle with myself. I can only say that we are all human and necessarily concerned with human outcomes and, for the most part, hopeful for human success and human happiness. While we may not be in control of our own actions, we also don’t know what will happen or what we can achieve in the future and in that way a world without free will might not be so different after all.