Free will: What is it and do we have it?

What is free will?

There are many definitions with subtle but important distinctions. I will not go into compatibilism vs. incompatibilism, etc.

Instead, I would like to offer the following one. Free will is when one’s “self” influences or changes one’s actions.

Of course, this begs another question.

What is self?

Is it our collection of memories? No, we’re more than just computer storage!

Is it our actions? No. Consider a robot that mimics our actions without any cognition. It observes and blindly copies our actions in a simulated environment identical to ours.

Could it be our narrative identity? The stories we tell ourselves that cohere our varied phenomenological experiences and seemingly guide our choices and actions.

I think so!

In other words, do our narrative identities shape our actions?

Research against

Recent neuroscience indicates otherwise. In experiments, scientists can accurately predict decisions from brain signals seconds before participants are consciously aware of them.


However, the timescale of these decisions is so short. For example, we hardly have control over our reflexes, which have never been argued as evidence against free will.

What about on a longer time scale?

Recent research on narrative identity shows correlation between the stories we tell ourselves and our well-being. For example, people who tell stories with themes of redemption are more optimistic and resilient.

What about causation?

That’s harder to show, but I think so. Cognitive behavioral therapy demonstrates that interventions can teach individuals to change their narrative habits and begin telling more optimistic and redemptive stories, leading to better health and well-being.

So do we have free will? Does our self influence our actions? Cognitive behavioral therapy seems to point to yes.