Free Will Is An Illusion


Most people feel like the complexity of human nature points to something other than the physical processes of their brains. From composers of orchestral symphonies that make the emotions soar, to the charitable who devote their entire lives to help others in need, to physicists who strive to answer questions of our own very existence, humanity seems infinitely diverse, deep, mysterious and complex. In explaining this complexity, the bumbling arrangement of trillions of drifting atoms – each without any awareness, purpose, desires or intentions – can seem grossly insufficient. Do we need something else to explain our species? Many believe we do.

This ‘something else’ has differed widely, based on religion, culture, time in history, and education. Religions tend to refer to a soul; ‘dualist’ philosophers have invoked an abnormal mind substance; in more modern times, people are looking to quantum mechanics and its inherent weirdness. Whatever this something is, it usually has the capacity for free will.  True freedom in how we dictate our lives – the ability to choose our own course when confronting each fork in the road of life – is the crux for many when pondering human nature. Free will has appeared to offer a reasonable explanation for our incredible existence and experience.

So what is free will? Free will is the notion that we are free to choose our thoughts and actions at any given moment. It implies that we could have acted differently than we did in the past – not due to some random occurrence, but because we as the conscious authors chose differently. Although you chose to drink a tea this morning, you could have had a coffee. You drove your car to work yesterday, but you could have caught the bus. In addition to this, free will implies that our conscious experience is the governing force when making these kinds of decisions. It certainly feels like this is how we conduct our lives. Cross-cultural studies have confirmed that this idea of free will is a pervasive intuition, an assumption we have all made about ourselves and everybody else. But it’s wrong.

Free will was born in the felt experience of individuals, raised on the bosom of faulty philosophy, yet has since starved by lack of nourishment from advancing scientific knowledge. Those that claim we are consciously free to author our thoughts are in fact invoking a metaphysical doctrine that a miracle takes place every time someone makes a decision. I am not using the word miracle to sensationalise this point, I mean it in every sense.

To possess the common notion of free will is to say the following occurs every time you have a thought;

1. Your felt experience of self, the ‘me’ and ‘I’ sitting inside your skull, intends to author a thought. This has not been caused by anything in prior moments, but comes out of a void of complete darkness.
2. Although you consciously intend to have that thought, you have somehow not thought it yet.
3. Your intent to author this thought, still independent of the brain, then produces the selective firing of billions of individual brain cells.
4. The firing of this network of cells in your head then produces the thought. A thought that you consciously intended in the first place, without the help of your brain.

This miracle apparently occurs every second of the day. Every single mundane thought you have. Thoughts such as ‘I wonder if the new iPhone 6 will fit into these pants’.

You yourself can actually notice the absence of these miracles. For instance, what is the next thought you’re going to have? The honest answer is – you have no idea. Thoughts can do no other than arise in your consciousness. And you can only be aware of them once they do. To argue against this, would be claiming that you can consciously think a thought before you have thought it.

Not only do we not control what our next thought will be, we have extreme trouble controlling when that next thought will occur. Let’s try an experiment. Try for a moment to not to have a thought. How long did you last? Maybe two or three seconds? Try again. And a quick disclaimer, ‘Don’t think’ is itself a thought. As many times as you care to try, you’re unlikely to achieve much more today. Where is the freedom in not even being able to control your next thought?

If not from our felt sense of self, where are these thoughts coming from? The answer’s simple – Our thoughts are the product of the physical processes of the brain. And neuroscience is replete with evidence that points to this. Functions of the mind are correlated with impulses of interconnected neurons, as detected via EEG and fMRI. Psychoactive drugs have specific effects on personality and the content of thought. Damage to the brain via trauma, surgery and tumours can affect isolated faculties of the mind such as speech, memory, emotion and the ability to recognise faces. And there has never been any evidence of a mind operating independent of the brain – like ghosts, auras, the afterlife, or reincarnation.

So it seems our mind is a product of the brain. And with the discovery of the scientific method, we have come to realise that we live in a universe dictated by pervasive physical laws. The idea that our minds could be truly free is squeezed even further when one considers that our brains are part of this physical environment. We as conscious beings cannot step outside of the causal stream of events of the universe. At every instant the state of your brain, and thus mind, is dependent on prior states that preceded it. We could trace this chain of events back, through each moment to moment occurrence – to the previous second, last minute, yesterday, last month, last year, to your birth, and beyond. No one chooses their parents, or their genes. No one chooses the time in history or environment into which they were born. In fact, no one even chooses whether to exist in the first place.

Even if there there is a feature of indeterminism or randomness in the universe, as suggested by quantum physics, this makes no difference. For how could we claim responsibility for truly random processes? Either our thoughts are the products of prior causes, or they occur randomly, or there’s some combination of the two. No matter how you stack the scales between determinism and indeterminism, nothing results in free will that people claim they have. Random elements would not make us any more free, just harder to predict.

The fact is, our subjective experience of free will is an illusion. There is nothing in physics, chemistry, neuroscience or psychology that could even make sense of the claim of free will. There is no ghost in the machine, no little being sitting in your brain behind the eyes, pushing buttons and pulling levers.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow, you said all that and can’t even explain what a thought is. Can you?

    1. Steve Asher says:

      I don’t see how including a definition of a thought would contribute to a short article such as this one. If you feel I’m mistaken please let me know how.

      1. Our subjective experience is through thoughts, “Your felt experience of self, the ‘me’ and ‘I’ sitting inside your skull, intends to author a thought.”, and many other references to thoughts and what they do. All your statements on thoughts infer that there is a settled science understanding of what a thought is. Your premises are based on this presupposition. They are invalid or at least unprovable/u nverifiable because of the presupposition and lack of definition.

        Your post relies on the definition of thought yet you do not know what it is. That is why I feel you are mistaken, and wrong.

        I’m not trying to be negative, but to take it all seriously we need a definition of what a thought is to be able to think everything you are saying through in a sensible way.

  2. Short of various sneaky solipsistic arguments, free will is, as you state, clearly a very difficult idea to defend. If we accept that our brains are not magical and remain bound by the laws that govern everything else, then we also have to accept that our thought content is caused not by ourselves, but by a series of physiochemical interactions. To try and squirm out of this by a vague appeal to quantum physics also gets us nowhere: an underlying random process gives us no more freedom than a deterministic one does.

    However to consciously accept this in our everyday lives delivers us to the most inhospitable of worlds. We suddenly become aware we have been in the passenger seat all along, toy steering wheel clutched firmly in hand. We are not responsible for our actions, nor have we ever been. Determinism (or at least some form thereof) and nihilism become unavoidable. The notions punishment, reward and morality are at best irrelevant and at worst non-existent.

    It is this aspect of free will that has always interested me: however certain we become that agency is an illusion, we are promptly forced to forget it and carry on with our lives in willful ignorance of it in the name of pragmatism.

    1. Steve Asher says:

      Thanks for you comment. But rather than resulting in “the most inhospitable of worlds”, I think that understanding this idea will lead us towards a profoundly improved society. I’ll address this in a future post.

      It’s important to note that these are two different questions regarding free will. The first one being, does it exist? The second being, what are its implications? These points are too often unknowingly tangled together, and so I wanted to post an article aimed solely at the concept of free will, before looking at its implications.

    2. Ryan says:

      Subconscious thoughts are just deep EMOTIONAL FEELING arises, and they are part of us. Subconscious thought appear.
      CONSCIOUS THOUGHTS are made BY US, and we do control them, we consciously perceive subconscious thoughts, and we do have our own thoughts.

      Read “the power of subconscious mind”, and stop babbling nonsense.

    3. daramantus says:

      Alexander, unconscious actions still YOUR unconscious actions. the brain is not separated from you . You are programming actions through the subconscious mind. Programmed actions are yours. you have no idea what free-will is and why there is no definition for it.

  3. Hi Steve,

    I hope your book on the illusion of free will and psychiatry is going well!

    In April, 2014, I published a book titled Free Will: Its Refutation, Societal Cost and Role in Climate Change Denial that I think will be of interest to you. Below, I’ve pasted a passage from the book that explains the correlation between free will belief and aggressive/criminal behavior. Here is a download link to a pdf file of my book, a quite short 56-page read –

    “Because free will belief encourages a rational attribution of immoral behavior to humans ( i.e., blaming), unyielding, aggressive, and criminal responses to such behavior would be more prevalent with free will believers than with those who hold free will to be an illusion. Research suggests attributive blaming correlates with

    a. more aggressive and violent seeking of revenge and retribution (Folger and Baron, 1996; Wickens, Wiesenthal, Flora and Flett, 2011);

    b. less forgiveness (Bradfield and Aquino, 1999; Meneses and Greenberg, 2011);

    c. more interpersonal conflict (Cashmore, and Parkinson, 2011; DeBoard-Lucas, Fosco, Raynor, and Grych, 2010; Meneses and Greenberg, Aquino; Tripp and Bies);

    d. less compassion (Decety, Echols and Correll, 2010; Zucker and Weiner, 1993);

    e. less charity (Campbell, Carr and MacLachlan, 2001; Carr and MacLachlan, 1998; Cheung and Chan, 2000);

    f. more anger toward others (Csibi and Csibi, 2011; Decety, Echols and Correll; Martinko and Zellars, 1998; Meneses and Greenberg);

    g. more anxiety and depression (Csibi and Csibi; DeBoard-Lucas, Fosco, Raynor, and Grych; Fourie, Rauch, Morgan, Ellis, Jordaan and Thomas, 2011; O’Connor, Kotze and Wright, 2011; Raskauskas, 2010);

    h. more arrogance and belittling of others (Decety, Echols and Correll; Miceli and Castelfranchi, 2011; O’Connor, Kotze and Wright);


    i. and more self-blame and guilt (Csibi and Csibi; Fourie, Rauch, Morgan, Ellis, Jordaan and Thomas; de Guzman,, 2010; Nicolle, Bach, Frith and Dolan, 2011; O’Connor, Kotze and Wright).

    Interviewing persons convicted of crimes against persons known to them would likely reveal that stronger belief in free will correlates highly with each of these responses.”

    I hope you’ll also chose to write about the free will-belief/climate change denial connection that I present, and support with published evidence.

    George Ortega
    White Plains, New York

  4. Mark says:

    That’s a really good article reflecting the gist of my own understanding and thinking on the idea of “free will.”

  5. Rodrigo says:

    explain this: [which literally proves that we have a soul]

    no, wait,, there is more
    explain DMT experiences.. (search youtube) which seems to be consciousness lefting the brain
    consciousness = self molded.
    therefore no only consciousness IS TOTALLY REAL, the self is 100% real.
    and we do have a soul

    get over it.
    You psychiatrists are using an agenda to implant the new age, nice try.. but it wouldn’t work

  6. Ryan says:

    The article is misleading, this is so wrong! I’m sorry..
    what do u think, that we are somehow controlled by our neurons? (This is worst than believe that we are controlled by god, and the same thing that saying that some mysterious entity is controlling you, NONSENSE)

    you have no clue about what you’re talking, even if there is no ghost in the machine (which is not true, we do have a soul/energy, as NDE already proved) , even if there was no “ghost in the machine”, we would still have free-will

    when physicsists says that our neurons INFLUENCE our actions (which is US, nothing is controlling us, unless you believe some entity is controlling you), so, returning to the subject, when physics says that our neurons INFLUENCE our actions, they are talking about, for example, the DOPAMINE NEURON (dopamine feeling will arise when you see that chocolate cake), you’ll have more chances to choose the chocolate cake than to choose tea, because of the feeling It gives you, but still, their tests done in experiments, showed that their predictions didn’t work with all, showing that some people have more free will to avoid the dopamine influences than other … for example..
    the dopamine neuron will influence the addict to get his cocaine, instead of tea… HE CLEARLY can choose tea, but he will be depressed, that why he don’t have much free-will about it, but he can still choose.
    When you say to someone that they have no free-will, you are doing NOTHING, but
    removing the person’s motivation, he/she believing this absurd that you wrote, he/she ends up getting disheartened, resulting in not acting the way she thought, and changing it destiny.

  7. Zoe says:

    Good site, nice and easy on the eyes and excellent content too.

  8. I have to disagree with the conclusion on two points. First, the idea that everything is either deterministic or random is a false dichotomy. The philosopher Pink discusses this as well. As Hume pointed out, ‘causation,’ as a concept, cannot even be defined in terms of patterns. If ‘causation’ has any meaning beyond ‘there happens to be a repeated pattern,’ it has to be simply intuited. It can’t be defined in other terms. Pink (see for example his ‘A Very Short Introduction to Free Will’) argues that similarly, of course a free choice cannot be defined in terms of deterministic causation and randomness – it is itself a basic concept that can’t be defined in those terms. That doesn’t make it meaningless or undefined any more than ‘causation’ is meaningless just because it can’t be defined in terms of patterns. Saying ‘free will’ is not well-defined just because it can’t be reduced to other concepts would be an animal with no eyes claiming ‘sight’ is ill-defined just because we can’t define it in terms of sounds. In other words, ‘free choice,’ if it is well defined at all, must be a ‘primitive’ concept, i.e. one that is not just defined in terms of other concepts. The same applies to causation, which many philosophers accept is well-defined (e.g. William James, John Locke), but which cannot be defined in terms of patterns or correlations alone (Hume’s attempt notwithstanding). A free choice, then, would be indeterminate, but not random, by virtue of this third primitive concept.

    The second point is physics provides two sources for free will to perhaps enter the picture. Let me preface these by saying, we know that matter can behave in different ways when brought together in different patterns. For instance, electrons and protons are fermions, but when brought together into certain combinations, their bound states can act like bosons. Then, there’s the fact that physics does say each individual quantum measurement is indeterministic. So physics gives us two possible sources for free will:
    1. Perhaps in some combinations, matter begins to behave differently, allowing for free will.
    2. We know quantum events occur in certain probability distributions, but not how an individual event happens the way that it does. One might even argue that these are primitive examples of ‘free will,’ and that, when combined with things like memory, they result in a more complex form of free will. And indeed, I recently saw a physics paper discussing the possibility of quantum effects in neurons.

    I realize both those statements sound rather like the ravings of New Age gurus trying to claim quantum mechanics somehow confirms their spiritual theories. And that is not it at all. I’m not trying to make any dogmatic claims here. I just don’t think we can eliminate the possibility of free will. My professional background is in mathematics and physics, so this kind of consideration is of interest to me.

    Oh, and one more point – I don’t think we need say that most of our thoughts or actions are freely chosen just because we maintain that some of them might be. We know for example that the choice of when to move your finger in an experiment occurs before you become conscious of it. But conscious free choice, if it exists, presumably exists primarily in the same way as a ship’s captain: giving occasional orders, but mostly everything that goes on in the brain occurs independently. For instance in the finger-moving experiment, the actual moment of movement is not consciously chosen, but what about the choice of getting involved in the experiment at all?

    Of course people are therefore often mistaken when they believe they freely chose something. But as William James put it, just because we are wrong in where we imagine something to happen doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen anywhere at all.

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