To believe or not believe: Does free will exist?

person with arms stretched out in front of son

Although free will may not exist, many may find comfort in believing that our decisions are truly ours. Photo credit: Zac Durant via Unsplash

Despite the implicit assumption of human free will, neuroscience forces us to reconsider our freedom…

Every day, human beings make countless decisions about significant and trivial things alike. The ability to choose seems fundamental to human existence, whether it concerns the breakfasts we eat, the romantic partners we date, or the career paths we pursue. Acting of our own volition, characterised by the concept of ‘free will’, is not just something humans do — it feels like who we are. Even when we’re constrained by unfortunate circumstances, we often find solace in our capacity to exercise some control over what happens next, even if it only involves a measly perspective shift. Despite the implicit assumption of human free will, neuroscience forces us to reconsider our freedom and re-evaluate the forces that drive our decision-making and who we become.

In his book Determined: Life Without Free Will, Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky comprehensively reviews scientific research to argue that ultimately, humans have no free will. He writes that we cannot select or regulate the numerous environmental and genetic influences that act upon us, and whether they consequently lead to our doom or exaltation. In a bleak summary, Sapolsky states, ‘We are nothing more or less than cumulative biological and environmental luck, over which we had no control’.

…Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky comprehensively reviews scientific research to argue that ultimately, humans have no free will.

The scientific debate surrounding free will gained popularity following a seminal experiment from American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, where participants were asked to spontaneously flex their fingers or wrists and report when they first became aware of their intention to move. While participants did this, Libet used electroencephalography (EEG) to study the bereitschaftspotential, or ‘readiness potential’, defined as a slow negative electrical potential in the brain that precedes voluntary movement. Libet’s study showed that the bereitschaftspotential occurred before participants had reported an intention to act, suggesting that their brains were already initiating a response that they weren’t consciously aware of yet. More interestingly, this result introduced the jarring possibility that human beings were not making choices by their own volition at all.

In the years following this study, numerous criticisms were raised about Libet’s findings on both philosophical and scientific grounds. For starters, there are a plethora of human decisions that are far more complex than a spontaneous flexing task, a fact acknowledged by Libet himself. Other explanations are also plausible: instead of the bereitschaftspotential reflecting the brain specifically preparing for movement, scientists have suggested it could be part of the natural ebbs and flows of neural activity, with some levels being more conducive to movement than others.Despite these flaws, Libet’s work spurred massive interest in examining free will through a neuroscientific lens, and several studies began to hint that people were not consciously aware of the decisions they made. Alongside this laboratory research, support could be found in the real world too. For instance, one widely referenced example is Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who, in 1848, was tragically involved in an accident where an iron rod pierced his head. Following the immense cranial damage, Gage began to display a radically different personality, leading Sapolsky to describe him as ‘the textbook case that we are the end product of our material brains’. Though examples like Gage are dramatic and rare, they lead us to wonder: if who we are can be changed so dramatically by a blow to the head or a lesion in the brain, are we really in control of our personalities, virtues, and faults?

Sapolsky’s position on free will is difficult to counter, being backed by extensive neuroscientific, psychological, and genetic studies, all of which have become increasingly robust as research and technology have evolved. There are also other thoughtful considerations that Sapolsky applies to strengthen his deterministic position. For example, he acknowledges that luck massively dictates the families we are born into, communities we interact with, and genes we inherit, which can go on to afford us coveted privileges or unfathomable hardship. Therefore, he states, we do not really drive our own fate— in fact, a lot of it is just happenstance.

While Sapolsky’s argument is secure and well-defended, it is worth considering another complementary perspective offered by philosopher Saul Smilansky, who advocates for an ‘illusionist’ view. Taking an illusionist perspective, Smilansky proposes that although free will is a figment of our imagination, it is one that has predominantly positive effects on society. This is a reassuring view, as research shows that upwards of 82% of people endorse free will, and these beliefs are associated with better life satisfaction, gratitude, sense of meaning, and self-efficacy. It is plain to see that believing we have control over what unfolds in our lives grants us a sense of optimism about what comes next. On the other hand, stripping this belief is more destructive than one might imagine. Research shows that participants who read anti-free will passages before completing computer tasks are more likely to cheat, show aggression, and less likely to help others. These findings support the importance of illusionism, suggesting that it may be better to believe in free will regardless of how ‘factual’ it is, because it instils hope, ambition, and morality in our lives. Additionally, it is probably easier to intellectualise and condemn free will beliefs when determinism does not seem that heartbreaking. But what about those of us who face harsh and oppressive realities? Certainly, for at least some individuals, resignation to genes and fate only perpetuates misery.

…Smilansky proposes that although free will is a figment of our imagination, it is one that has predominantly positive effects on society.

This is not so much of an ‘ignorance is bliss’ situation, but rather one where we may benefit from persisting with hopefulness and conducting ourselves as if our actions matter. In my opinion, there is a balanced way of approaching this debate, and value to be taken from both sides. On one hand, believing that we can make decisions of our own volition drives us to reach our potential and to find comfort in trying, bit by bit, to make living more bearable, exciting, and meaningful. On the other, adopting Sapolsky’s takeaways can encourage us to be more forgiving, humane, and empathetic. It is true that not everything can be boiled down to choice, and the reality is that the things we accomplish and fail at are usually preceded by thousands of events that we often had no say over. This realisation also fosters humility and grace in how we perceive ourselves and the accolades we gather over the years.

Overall, there is no need for the findings of neuroscience to elicit alarm. Although a pure kind of free will likely doesn’t exist given the evidence we have, on a day-to-day level, it’s better to believe you have some power in how things unfold—both for your own sake and that of others. There’s not much we have absolute control over in life, but as Jean Paul Sartre elegantly wrote, ‘Freedom is what we do with what is done to us’.