Free Will in 1000 words

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This is the second in a series trying out pithy explanations of words I use a lot in this blog. The first was on the word probability, linked here.

Humpty Dumpty

From Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)

I prefer the word volition, but the overlapping terms of free will and choice are more in the common vocabulary. So, here’s my take on free will. The usual “Big Question” is something like, “Am I in control of my decisions, or am I just swept up in the stream of the universe’s events? Or, if I have no free will, how can I be responsible for my actions?”

The theologians

The idea that humans are free to make and be responsible for significant decisions in their lives goes back in western religion to the “temptation of Eve” in Genesis. In the first century Christian era, the Apostle Paul pushed back, saying maybe he was not so free:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15 NRSV)

The theological split on free will in western Christianity is, in the view of many religious historians, the legacy of a schism in the emerging Protestant church during the 16th century. Swiss cleric John Calvin (1509–1564) foreshadowed the philosophical concept of determinism with his insistence on some form of predestination, in which an all-knowing God must know whether you are destined for Heaven or Hell from the moment you are conceived. Free will devolves into religious illusion here, a view called divine fatalism.

John Newton’s famous hymn “Amazing Grace” reflects this view, where we are but “saved wretches.” The resultant Calvinist doctrine of the “elect” (“I know I am saved, but I’m not sure about you”) undergirded the 19th century American North-South Baptist split, as well as the Apartheid theology of the Afrikaner church. Calvin’s “election” theology persists to this day in more culturally acceptable forms in much of Christianity, particularly in white American Evangelicalism.

Not long after Calvin, Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) asserted that “if they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not be saved.” A competing Protestant branch that includes modern Methodism emerged down this path, called Arminianism, where human free will “to sin or not to sin” returns to the picture.

The neuroscientist/philosophers

Philosophers, especially the new breed who combine that discipline with research into neuroscience, often go at each other with meat axes on this topic. Many physicists since Einstein have been determinists, asserting that in the classical models of physics, everything that happens in this moment is a function of what happened in the infinitesimal prior moment, Sam Harris is one of the best known writers on this side. [1]

Supporting this view, there appears to be no locatable “A-B switch” in the human brain where some single controlling point says, “Go left!” or Go right!”  Some interesting brain studies even suggest that your conscious thought of, say, “Raise my left arm,” actually lags the start of your arm moving by a few microseconds. Are you perhaps creating an explanation for that “pre-determined” arm movement after the fact? [2]

I am somewhere in the compatibilist camp on this issue, whose most vocal advocate is neuroscientist/philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett frequently says that, “Free will is real, but it is not what you think it is.” He has at times expressed choice as emerging from biological “degrees of freedom,” of which a frog has but a few while a human has a lot.

The vertebrate brain, in Dennett’s description, evolved as an “expectation generator.” Over millions of years, we have gained the ability to understand and probabilistically predict the outcomes of possible actions, and we then act accordingly to improve our chances at survival. In effect, we imagine a possible future, which “tweaks the odds” of biological determinism. [3] Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson calls this biology “an elaborate mechanism of environmental assessment” for adaptation. [4]

My pithy definition

My definition differs somewhat from Dennett’s, but more as what I think is a “close enough” expression that (overly?) simplifies some complicated biology and philosophy. Free will, in my definition, is the conscious experience of “watching your brain” initiate a physical action. That action, say lifting your arm to grab a coffee cup, is initiated by your sensory awareness at the moment (what you see, hear, etc.) evaluated by weighted probabilities derived from your brain’s memories of perhaps thousands of similar actions from the past, plus that “mind’s eye” of a potential future. [5]

The brain’s ability to biochemically “assess probabilities” in how neurons fire in groups is quite well documented. In short, it appears to be the weighted sum of all the “last times” we did something similar, but we perceive that we have it “under control.” And the memory of the result, in turn, feeds the next time, i.e., “learning.” [6]

If you “feel torn” about a decision, it may be because multiple past experiences are generating near-equal weights. Even then, because you are watching a stochastic (probabilistic) process in action, what actually happens to that arm may not be what you “intended.” Sometimes my grab at that coffee cup misses the mark. What I perceive as intention is usually what happens. I then call that my “free will” in action: “I intended to do that.” When I miss the cup, my brain “makes up” another explanation.

Volition, then

The term “free will” carries a lot of religious, philosophical and scientific “baggage.” Likewise, “choice,” where we add a huge dose of politics. This is why I prefer the word volition. There is “something” going on inside us that causes us to either reach toward the fruit or the chocolate cake on the dessert tray in front of us. That “something” is volition, whatever its biology, sans any religious or political message.

As for those religious and philosophical implications of free will, I like Daniel Dennett’s characterization of humans as “moral agents.” Regardless of the biology, he says, human society collectively evaluates our ability to “to control the degrees of freedom that matter when they matter.” We don’t absolve adult humans of certain responsibilities, regardless of biology or physics or “God’s will.”


  1. Harris, Sam. Free Will. Free Press, 2012.
  2. The first was the famous “Libet study” of 1983. It remains a controversial topic.
  3. Daniel Dennett’s most extensive discussion of free will and compatibilism is in his book, Freedom Evolves (Viking Press, 2003). More recently, he discussed the issue on Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.
  4. Wilson, David Sloan. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago Press, 2010, p.83.
  5. Is driving a car an act of free will, for instance? It is a combination of conscious thought but perhaps more subconscious probabilistic reaction based on years of driving experience, plus a perhaps-flawed vision of where you are headed.
  6. Even our vision is interpreted in terms of what your brain expects to see, which is why we can be so easily fooled by the magician’s sleight of hand. This mostly happens unconsciously, but sometimes we “watch it happen.”

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8 thoughts on “Free Will in 1000 words

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