Does Free Will Really Exist? Your Thoughts

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Stephen Cave sparked a ton of reader discussion with his essay “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” and you can wade into the robust comments section if you’re determined to do so. Here’s one of the more fascinating findings in Cave’s piece:

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

For an in-depth interrogation of that idea, here’s a video of neuroscientist Sam Harris (whom Cave quoted extensively in his piece) on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and it opens with Harris defending the sort of research pioneered by Libet:

Nick Clairmont—our bright young Politics fellow who wrote his master’s dissertation on the philosophical concept of semicompatibilism—contributed his own note to our discussion and took Cave’s title a step further: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will and Determinism.” Nick addressed a number of reader emails, as did Cave in a followup note, “Free Will Exists and Is Measurable”—which introduced a new concept, FQ:

We already have tests that assess people’s reasoning skills, creativity, self-control and the likes, all of which are essential components of psychological free will. In another essay, I have suggested that we could therefore meaningfully talk about a “Freedom Quotient” or FQ, which would allow us to rate your or my free will, and identify ways in which we could make it even freer.

Several more readers are joining the philosophical fray. Here’s David in Tallahassee with “my case against free will”:

You don’t decide where you are born. You don’t decide whether you win the lottery of birth, and you don’t decide whether you are born a minority and/or with certain abilities/defects of the brain (ADD or something on the autism spectrum, for better or usually worse). For the most part, you don’t decide your diet and the interactions you have with adults and peers (in your most formative years). Add all of this to the fact that our actions and the way we see the world are governed by chemicals in the brain.

“Free will” is a concept usually thought of in the micro sense, but this heuristic applying to everyone in the world, one begins to wonder how little control we have over large macro world trends and forces. Can we really blame war criminals, domestic offenders and fraudulent
bankers? Or does policy and society have a responsibility to be intervening as doctor (rather than punisher) on behalf of the very worst parts of us, which we do not control?

That analogy—doctors intervening with patients—resonated with me because I’ve long considered prison to be a sort of quarantine. If criminal actions are essentially deterministic, criminals might be absolved from any moral culpability based on free will, but of course that doesn’t mean we should allow violent criminals to roam free, spreading violence to others. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku touches on the criminal factor in this clip:

A reader in the military, Robert, has a tough question:

I am about to lose someone dear to me. If I have free will and the ability to choose, why can’t I stop the sadness?

I lost one of my closest friends to brain cancer a few years ago, and I think I would be sad if that sadness completely stopped, because that would mean I stopped thinking about him.

This next reader also delves into some bleak thoughts:

One thing to remember about the lack of free will is that if it really doesn’t exist, it implies much, much more than mere lack of choice. Remember that we are talking about the idea of reduction of the mind to a mere machine—a complex machine, but no more than that.

When you reduce the possibility of a soul or something operating in the same conceptual space, you take away much of the significance of not only our actions but also our reactions. I stab you—it wasn’t my choice. You feel pain, but the pain you feel is an illusion, no more real than my idea that I had any option not to cause it. Remember: complex machine, but no more significant than a computer programmed to light up a sign that says “suffering” when kicked.

I don’t care when I break a glass, and under a non-deterministic mindset, it’s just as illogical to care when a person bleeds or starves. It makes no more difference then how many times a dropped tennis ball happens to bounce.

If someone pushes a button and destroys all life on earth in a nuclear holocaust, you might think it bad, but your feeling was predetermined as well. The universe itself doesn’t care about our presence or absence, and can’t. When the meaning is stripped from choice, it’s necessarily stripped from human existence itself.

If you’re interested in another recent Atlantic piece on this subject, check out Julie’s “Regret Is the Price of Free Will: Feeling in control of your life is good for you, but it can also lead to heartbreak over mistakes and lost opportunities.” One reader has a thought:

Julie writes, “While too much upward counterfactual thinking (and regret) has been associated with anxiety and depression, it also plays a key role in problem-solving, achieving goals, and improving behavior.”

I agree. I believe it also has something to do with frustration, the negative emotional reaction to not getting what one wants or needs. A stalking tiger that misses its prey simply moves on, waiting for the next chance, even if it ends up starving to death. But in early humans, that missed chance must have eventually resulted in frustration and anger, with the brain developing the need for planning and hence advanced thinking. Perhaps emotions like regret, frustration, and anger also led to consciousness itself.

For a more robust take on those mysteries of the mind, check out the recent piece Michael Graziano wrote for us, “A New Theory Explains How Consciousness Evolved.” If you want to grapple with any of these ideas, on free will or consciousness, drop us a note and we’ll weave it into the discussion.