Free Will: A Great Paradox

In the modern world we are faced with an almost unlimited amount of choices. We all make numerous decisions each day, whether we are aware of it or not. Many of our choices are relatively insignificant, such as: What will we wear today? What will we eat for breakfast? Will we stop at a coffee shop on our way to work? Then there are more important decisions we might tackle at work, depending on our occupation and position. Outside of work leisure time opens up another series of choices.

fork in the roadThen there are the big decisions, which can alter the course of one’s life. Good or bad outcomes often follow based on the decisions we take. For example: The partner we choose, the career we pursue and unforeseen events that will force us to choose the next path. As the saying goes: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.”

An Introduction to So-Called Decision-Making 

Can we account for the decisions we make? Of course it is easy to rationalize why we do what we do, but what’s behind a decision? Most of us feel that our decisions are ours alone. But is that true? First let us look at different types of decisions (or perceived decisions).

  • Instinctual: There are actions we take that could be perceived as decisions but in reality aren’t. They are actions that are basically reactions to the outside world. For instance, if we cross the street and a car is racing at us, we will get out-of-the-way. Or if a ball is thrown at our face we will try to catch it with our hand.
  • Appetites: My favorite pie is pumpkin pie. As a dinner guest I am sometimes offered a choice of pies. If pumpkin is on the list, I will always choose it. I may have a gene that makes pumpkin pie taste better to me than other pies. Therefore, is my choice of pie actually a decision or a mere consequence of my genes?
  • Desires: Much of our life journey is a response to desires we can’t account for. These include career choices, sexual attraction, hobbies, leisure activities and more. We simply do not know why we are interested, or pushed in the directions we are. Our desires are a complex mix of genetics and cultural conditioning.
  • Contemplative: This is the slow pros and cons type of decision-making, when we take the time to weigh our options before we choose. For example, let’s say we are shopping for a new car. We will look at different models and probably tests drive a few vehicles. Weighing quality and cost we come to a final decision on a new car.

Of the four examples above, the last listed (contemplative) looks and feels most like a true decision. The other three fall more in a grey area where one can’t be sure how much decision-making is involved. As you will see later, even the contemplative type may not be what it appears to be at first glance. That brings to the table the idea of free will.

Free Will

free willWhat do we mean when we say free will? Free will is the idea that we have the ability to make decisions independent of our genetics and conditioning. Another way to think about free will is the belief that we could have done differently than we did in a given circumstance. And likely, the only way we could have done differently, is if we were different at the time. That is, if our genetics and conditioning were different.

We are who we are due to a long series of events not of our choosing. To account for the actions we take, one has to consider evolutionary history. The human brain (presumably key to decision-making) is a product of evolution and each unique brain is genetically based. Also parenting and social conditioning have a significant effect on human development and behavior. One could even conclude that in order to have free will the universe would have to be different.

The Universe on a Pool Table

Let’s do a simple thought experiment. A pool table is used as a model for the universe. In this experiment only one shot is considered (the break). The table represents all of space and the fundamental forces. The billiard balls act as the particles (atoms, sub-atomic particles and so on). The cue stick is the force behind the big bang. At the break, the cue ball is struck and from that point on everything else follows.

pool ballsAs an observer one has to wait and see how the balls will collide and bounce around, but it can only turn out one way. It was all determined by the brake and the way the table was setup. The movement of the billiard balls are a consequence of the characteristics of the balls, the break and the nature of the table. One could say that it is a closed system; after the initial conditions nothing can intervene in the process.

Now let’s look at the actual universe. The big bang created spacetime, the fundamental forces and particles. All the particles behave as a consequence of the conditions at the big bang (the break) and the acting forces. Can anything after the initial conditions intervene in how the universe unfolds? The universe is also a closed system, it just happens to be unimaginably larger that a pool table. We should be mindful not to confuse our ignorance of the future with the prospect of altering it.

A Game of Dice

What I just described is a deterministic picture of the universe. It is sometimes referred to as the Newtonian view or classical physics. Here the universe unfolds like clockwork. If the present conditions are known, then the laws of physics can be applied either forward or backwards in time with great accuracy. Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned that another set of physical laws described by quantum mechanics seems to contradict the classical picture.

At the scale of the atom randomness is introduced and outcomes can only be predicted in terms of probabilities. There is no sure way to determine what a single sub-atomic particle will do. Only if a sufficient number of identical experiments are run, will the aggregate of outcomes reflect the assigned probabilities. So what we are left with is a deterministic framework at the large-scale and a probabilistic understanding for the small-scale.

Some people believe that quantum mechanics seems to erode determinism and opens the door for free will. However, I would argue that randomness and probabilities doesn’t get us any closer to free will. If the universe is essentially deterministic, or on occasion tosses a dice, how does any of this grant us free will? Whether classical or quantum laws apply, the universe is presumably still subject to those laws, and so are we.

The Great Paradox

 Does something change when consciousness arises?  Conscious beings are made of the same kind of particles that permeate the universe. There is no reason to think that brains are any different. If our thinking faculties are caused by natural forces acting on particles in our brain, how can we conclude that our decisions are ours alone?

To examine this question let’s do another thought experiment. Let’s say you are asked to name the first city that comes to your mind. After a few seconds of reflection you say Rome. Can you account for why you did not think of Paris, or any one of hundreds of other possible cities? Even if you were given a little more time and asked to choose a city, you would still be limited to a list that your mind could produce. It would appear to me that we fundamentally do not choose our thoughts, they simply arise. How can we get to free will if we don’t choose our thoughts? I suppose one could make the argument that from a collection of thoughts that do arise, we can then choose and that constitutes free will. However, that would mean that our decisions are influenced by a stream of thoughts that our conscious mind does not produce.

Scientifically and Philosophically, the idea that we have free will makes little sense. Some people realize this, but if we adopted this principle on mass, it could be the collapse of society as we know it. The idea of free will touches everything we do. Without free will (or we could call it personal responsibility) everything about our society would change. We would have to rethink our justice system, religions, morality and relationships. Nevertheless, if we all agreed that decisions are caused rather than made, it would undoubtedly lead to a more compassionate world. We would probably still have to hold people accountable for their behavior, but we would be less inclined to be judgmental, angry or resentful.

From a personal decision-making stand point, without free will, we would also be easier on ourselves for perceived bad decisions that often lead to regret. This we can do right now, regardless of how society at large thinks about free will. Nevertheless, going forward we are confronted with an unavoidable paradox. How can we possibly go through the normal decision-making process without the feeling that we are in control? And there lies the great paradox. Even if one accepts that free will is an illusion, I don’t see any other reasonable choice (a choice that is fundamentally not ours) than to live as if we have it.


References: Sam Harris on “Free Will”, Published on March 27, 2012

Free Will — What Sam Harris Gets Right and Wrong, Published on April 10, 2013,



3 responses to “Free Will: A Great Paradox

  1. There are three impossible freedoms: freedom from causation, freedom from ourselves, and freedom from reality. Because these can never be more than imaginary freedoms, the word “free” can never be interpreted to actually mean any one of these.

    For example, if the will were free from causation it could never implement its intent. The will is meaningless if it cannot cause an effect. Therefore one can never imply “freedom from causation” in the idea of “free will”.

    And if the will were free from oneself, that is, one’s own genetics and life experiences, one’s own reasons and feelings, one’s own beliefs and values, etc., then it would no longer be one’s own will, but presumably someone else’s. Therefore one can never imply “freedom from oneself” in the idea of “free will”.

    And the only freedom from reality exists in our imagination, and such “willings” are more properly called “wishes”. So one can never imply “freedom from reality” in the idea of “free will”.

    Question: If we eliminate these irrational requirements, do we still have a meaningful use of the concept of “free will”?

    Yes. Ordinary free will is simply us deciding for ourselves what we will do (free), without being forced by someone else to choose or act against our own will (unfree). And this is a very meaningful distinction.

    When Billy wants to go outside, his mother says he must wear a coat. So Billy puts on the cumbersome coat, but does so against his will. When Bill is older, he is free to make these decisions for himself, and live with the consequences.

    When one of the marathon bombers hijacked a car and forced the driver to aid in his escape, the driver was not acting of his own free will, but rather in fear of his life until he could escape. Because he was forced against his will, he was not guilty of aiding in the escape.

    This concept of free will requires nothing magical or supernatural. And it is totally consistent with the idea of reliable cause and effect (determinism).

    In fact, to find a free will that is inconsistent with determinism, you have to create an imaginary form of freedom, one that cannot exist, except as a philosophical straw man.


  2. Thank you for your comments.

    There is certainly a different feeling when one chooses freely or is ordered or forced to act. However, we should not confuse a feeling for a fact.

    When we are forced to act, it is clear why we do what we do. When we act of your own free will, there are numerous subtle causes (not of our choosing) that account for our behaviour. We often feel that our will is free and that feeling is perhaps necessary for us to navigate through life.

    The great paradox, as I see it, is the feeling of free will vs. the reality of free will.


    • Speaking within the context of a perfectly deterministic universe, which I believe in, I find that free will remains and that it is no illusion.

      We happen to be biological organisms with an advanced neurological system. As with all biological organisms, we come with built-in needs for food, water, and other things essential to our survival. And, with the evolved brain we also have the capacity to learn, experiment, imagine alternative possibilities, evaluate them, and choose how we will go about meeting our basic needs and desires.

      Within the deterministic universe, we present as purposeful causal agents. Our purpose to survive as individuals, societies, and species motivates us to adapt ourselves to our environment, by learning. And to adapt our environment to us, for example by building homes and communities.

      And that purposeful package of causality is actually us. And it is actually us walking and talking. And it is actually us performing the mental process of choosing, based upon our own reasons and feelings, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic dispositions and our own life experiences.

      We are real. And our choosing is real. The mental process of choosing is just as real as the physical act of walking. Neither one is an illusion.

      And it is within this context that free will exists. Either we are free to decide for ourselves, or we are forced to act against our will.

      The mental error that leads to the paradox is the false claim that we must have “absolute” freedom if we are to have any true freedom at all. And I addressed that above.

      Every choice we make of our own free will is also inevitable. But the fact of inevitability is so ubiquitous that it becomes irrelevant. Like a constant that is always on both sides of every equation, it has no practical significance.

      The significant fact is that it is authentically us, as we are at that time, making the decisions for ourselves. And that is relevant, meaningful, and significant.


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