Is Free Will An Illusion?

Is Free Will An Illusion?

Uh oh. Be warned, this article is almost certain to annoy you. Nothing appears to frustrate my friends more than me arguing against the existence of free will. It results in collective eye rolling, a verbal onslaught of counterarguments, and on one occasion, being kicked (literally) off a Colombian boat into the sea in the middle of the night. More on this later. You too might be upset with the claim that you’re much less of an autonomous actor than you think you are, if at all. But don’t worry, if you start feeling anger towards me too, rest assured it’s not your fault.

One of the most commonly accepted myths is the concept of ‘free will’. The very idea is pretty much the bedrock of Western civilisation. The 1776 US Declaration of Independence exemplifies this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The key message here is that the freedom of the individual comes first (so long as you’re a white man). Despite its obvious flaws, the underlying belief in the utility of the individual persisted into the 21st century. Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will”. Western democracies assume we are free agents. We are free to choose between right and wrong. The land of the free. These key tenets of democracy build on the Oxford Dictionary definition of free will as, “The power of acting without the constraint of necessity of fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion”. I hate to say it, but no-one alive acts without constraint or simply on their own discretion.

Nature Or Nurture? Both Deny The Existence Of Free Will

The age-old debate between nature and nurture actually supports the idea that free will does not exist:

  • Team Nature argues that people are a function of their neurology and genetics (over which we have no control).
  • Team Nurture counters that we are a product of the way we’re brought up and socialised (over which we have no control).

Personally, I think that humans are the product of a combination of both. If you do too – which you do – you’re tacitly accepting that the content of your character and personality are the result of two factors entirely out of your control.

You aren’t convinced? OK. Let’s start by examining whether this author has free will. He, like us all, is the product of both his genetics (nature) and upbringing (nurture). On the nurture front, he had no control over where he was born. When he did eventually become aware of his surroundings, he found himself living in a developed, Western, and democratic country. He was surrounded by a loving family. On the nature front, he found that he had a reasonably well-functioning body and brain (although some of you might stringently be disputing the last claim as this article continues). So, he was fairly lucky on both counts.

It isn’t hard to see that he played no role in the creation of the intricate network of neurons that made ‘Mike Richards’ who he is today. Indeed, his belief that free will is a myth and decision to write this obtuse article was determined by pre-existing causes: his neurology and socialisation. As was the decision to refer to himself in the third person for the last two paragraphs, in a probably successful attempt to make the reader think that he had truly lost the plot.

A Captainless Ship

You can turn these arguments on yourself, should you be interested. Did you have any control over the society you were born into, who your parents are, or the belief systems that were rammed down your throat from the second that you existed? Did you choose what you were taught at school, the basic assumptions about the acceptable ways in which humans should behave, or the language you speak (which constrains the way you think)? Did you freely decide what your intelligence quotient (IQ) would be, or have any say over the neural networks which give rise to every thought or action you have ever taken? And indeed, generate the very feeling that you have free will in the first place?

No. Of course you didn’t. The firing of your neurons has determined not just some, but all of the thoughts, memories, and actions you’ve ever had. You had no say in your neurology, which determines your ability to think or act in any scenario. So, how much of what you do is truly a choice? This is where it gets really uncomfortable. There is increasing neuroscientific evidence to show that we make decisions before we’ve even become consciously aware of them. Given that the neural pathways that govern our actions aren’t accessible by consciousness, how could our choices be said to be governed by free will at all?

Neuroscience Unearthing Some Uncomfortable Truths

Using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging, studies are shedding light on how we make decisions. Neuroscientists have long known that the brain prepares to act before you’re consciously aware that you’re going to do so. There are just a few milliseconds between the moment you’re consciously aware of a plan to act, and the moment you take action. A few milliseconds isn’t much time to evaluate the pros and cons of taking this course of action, in a manner consistent with the idea of free will. Increasingly, recent studies imply we take certain decisions well before we’re consciously aware of taking them.

In 2019, a team of researchers were able to predict the basic choices of participants 11 seconds before they consciously declared their decisions. Lead researcher Joel Pearson said, “We believe that when we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already… As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought trace which is stronger.” In other words, when you make any decision or take a course of action, you’re acting upon the unconscious generation of thoughts… over which you had no control. In a further study, researchers presented participants with scenarios that can “predict with 100% accuracy every single decision a person will make” and “everything that any human thinks or does could be predicted ahead of time based on their earlier brain activity”. Oh dear.

I Think, Therefore I… Hold On, I Don’t Know Why I Think

I have personal experience of the utter randomness of the thoughts that my brain spits out at me, by going on 10-day silent meditation retreats. They’re not fun, so hopefully reading this article will suffice, rather than torturing yourself in a meditation hall. You spend 16 hours per day focusing on the contents of your mind, without distraction. Occasionally, you get to the stage where your mind is completely silent. This never lasts. You will eventually be distracted by a thought.

Where did that thought come from? Why did I think about that particular thought? I certainly didn’t ask it to arise. This is the same for all of us. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that your thoughts jump spasmodically from events that happened years ago, to what you want for lunch, to what the weather might be like next week, with almost no warning or logical sequence. Unfortunately, we’re so distracted by thoughts all of our lives that we mostly don’t even realise this is happening.

Mind Games

You can experience this yourself. Close your eyes. Count your breaths starting from one and going up to 20. Repeat if you get to 20 (you won’t). Before reaching 20, you will have become distracted by thought. What was the thought that distracted you? What were its contents? And where did it come from? Did you actively think, “I’m now going to exercise my free will and have this thought?”

Or, you can play another game. Take a few deep breaths. And then think of an animal. Any animal. What animal did you think of? Did you choose to think about that animal? You might retrospectively attach some story to your choice: “Well, I thought of a cat because I love cats” (which would be a wrong answer because cats are rubbish). But did you choose to think about it? No. The thought came to you fully formed, from somewhere. I thought of a zebra, by the way. I have no idea why.

At this stage of the article, you’re probably getting mentally defensive. After all, I’m arguing that everyone in the world isn’t truly in control of their actions. But increasingly in the field of neuroscience, and throughout recent history, some of the world’s greatest thinkers (this author included) have cast doubts on the existence of free will. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Samuel Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Fredrich Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins, to name but a few. Einstein’s summary is perhaps the easiest to digest:

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was travelling its way of its own accord… So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

Would Society Collapse If We All Ditched Our Belief In Free Will?

Perhaps. If we didn’t believe in free will and no-one was held to account for their actions, then I doubt that the world would become a better place. To illustrate this point, let’s go back to Colombia, where I was booted off a boat in the middle of the night. That evening, I had been particularly obtuse to my friendship group, bringing up the argument that free will was an illusion over a few beers. After becoming exasperated with my refusal to drop it, they managed to change the subject and started having a nice evening again. Fortunately for one of my friends, Angus*, we had booked a night-time snorkelling trip to see the beautiful fluorescent plankton in the nearby Caribbean Sea.

Well before we had reached our desired destination, Angus took his chance. As I stood up to adjust my life jacket, he kicked me forcefully in the behind. I splashed into the ocean, much to his and the group’s delight. “Sorry Mike, I couldn’t help but do that. I have no free will, of course. So I can’t be blamed for kicking you into the ocean!” he said with glee. It was a forceful (and quite literal) rebuttal of my arguments. Or was it? Even in this scenario, I would actually agree that he had no choice in the matter. Assuming he had the same neurology and you replayed that evening’s events a million times, it’s true to say that he would have kicked me into the ocean every single time.

You might argue that if we all accept that free will does not exist, much worse things will happen than unwarranted night-time dips in Colombia. People could in theory commit any crime, and be acquitted on the basis that free will does not exist and that they weren’t responsible for their actions. True, this isn’t an ideal outcome. But to some degree, it’s already happening. There have been several court cases where lawyers have argued that their client was not guilty of murder, because a brain tumour was pressing on their client’s amygdala (which is crucial for behavioural control). Many people in these scenarios seem to agree that this situation warrants sympathy from judges. But how different is this to being born with neural networks that made you more likely to commit a crime? Should you be acquitted simply because you had no control over how your brain works?

For the sake of humanity, probably not. You still have to punish people for any crimes they do commit. But just because the illusion of free will is an inconvenient truth, does not mean it is not a truth.

Compassionate Determinism

Strangely, accepting that free will does not exist – which I have done – can lead to morally positive outcomes. There are two main ones here: humility and compassion. Starting with humility. You’re much less likely to think that you’re great, special, and entitled to any of the successes you have in your life, if you accept that they were nothing to do with you. They simply reflect your luck in the life lottery. You might be tempted to think that you’ve succeeded because of discipline, hard work, and diligence. These character traits were indeed important in your successes, I’m sure. But they were determined by prior causes outside of your control. They were not you.

If you look at the most arrogant people on the planet, a key feature of their unpleasantness is a view that they truly deserve everything good that comes their way. People struggling financially? “They’re lazy, and didn’t work as hard as me. They’re getting what they deserve,” would be a common argument from people like this. If you do the opposite, and accept that any achievement of yours is simply the product of nature and nurture as inputs (that you didn’t choose), you’re much more likely to be a humble person.

On the other side of the coin, you can become much more compassionate when dealing with others and yourself if you deny the existence of free will. If you make a mistake, it’s comforting to know that you could replay the scene an infinite amount of times and, so long as the inputs were the same, you’d take exactly the same course of action every time. Against this backdrop, regret seems futile.

Someone’s behaviour upsets and confuses you. You can find solace in the idea that they aren’t really in control of their actions. This even applies to evildoers. Hating them seems arbitrary. They too were not responsible for the nature and nurture that so compels them to act. It’s true to say that with the same neurology and socialisation, you would have behaved in the same evil way as the person you so despise.

With this in mind, I forgave my friend for kicking me into the sea. And with true magnanimity, wrote this article explaining how his actions, if anything, proved my point. Fortunately, my pettiness is not something I really have any control over.

*When my friend Angus is not kicking people into the ocean, he runs a really quite fantastic start-up called Mojo Men. Check it out.


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  • Jools says:

    What about serendipity?

    • Mike Richards says:

      I suppose serendipity is consistent with the idea that free will does not exist, given that serendipity describes unplanned events with positive outcomes. I suppose if most outcomes are random, it would make sense that some are positive and some are negative!

  • Alex says:

    I strongly agree with every word in this article! I used to argue with mates about this, too. The world appears to be random events and people making choices but really it’s just a big sequence of predictable (in theory, not in practice) chemical reactions

    • Mike Richards says:

      Too true! Makes life sounds a little bit less romantic when we boil it down to chemical reactions…. but that is what it happening!

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