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Free Will

Free Will Isn't Independent of Biology, It's Enabled by It

Like it or not, we conscious selves are in control.

Key points

  • Determinism is likely false; you are in control.
  • Conscious intentions control the brain, and selves control conscious intentions.

In my new book, Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of the Self Tells Us About How to Live, I argue that there is strong reason to doubt the truth of determinism. I also argue that people who believe in determinism may pay a grave price in their personal lives, because such beliefs undermine their own autonomous agency and well-being. Based on these arguments, I conclude that we should discard determinism altogether as a belief system. In contrast, free will (the ability to causally affect our own behavior) is likely fact.

What Is Determinism?

Determinism is the belief that human behavior is only caused by factors independent of conscious experience. Such factors might include our genetics, our conditioning, our external circumstances, our bodily condition, or our neurochemistry. All of these are said to supersede, and render irrelevant, our experience of making choices in the moment. In the deterministic view, human agency is an illusion, even a delusion, that we should get over as soon as possible—just like we should get over beliefs in magic, extrasensory perception, and conspiracy theories.

In this post, I explain why determinism is a grave misunderstanding of what is happening within human minds. I’ll touch on neuroscience perspectives because they most threaten our recognition of our essential (even inescapable) free will. A neuroscientist (like Sam Harris, in his book Free Will, which is an attack on free will) might say that we (i.e., our psychological selves and self-prompted deliberations) don’t cause our behaviors; rather, our brains cause our behavior, by processes that we cannot know and over which we have no control. For example, we don’t know why we prefer X over Y; we just do. And, therefore, we don’t know why we pick X (or sometimes, perversely, pick Y). In Harris’s view, this renders free will impossible. Only all-knowing, omniscient choice could count as free will, and, of course, nobody knows everything about themselves.

If this requirement were accepted, then I would have to agree that free will is an illusion. But I believe this is far too stringent a requirement for free will—restricting it only to infinite god-like beings, who likely do not exist.

What Is Free Will?

Instead, I adopt philosopher Christian List’s (2019) definition of free will. List sidestepped centuries of philosophical debate by defining free will as an advanced capacity of the mature and healthy human brain. It merely requires three interrelated abilities: (1) the ability to generate a range of behavioral options to consider, (2) the ability to pick just one of them, and (3) the ability to take action in accordance with that choice.

In contrast to all other organisms, humans can use language to ask themselves questions (e.g., “What do I want to do here?”). This activates their nonconscious minds to model the current situation, and to project it forward in time, as a function of various imagined options (“Shall I apologize for what I said, or should I instead push my point further? Hmmm…Looking at where this is heading, it seems I should back down”). Via this critical set of evolved capabilities, we can imagine entire future life tracks, or even future worlds and social orders. Then we can act to shunt the future into the track we have chosen (or, at least, try to do so).

Let’s return to Harris’s argument. Harris might say that we have no idea why we concluded that backing down is the better choice, and, therefore, we did not really “choose” that action. Maybe we were “compelled” to that action, by processes we cannot control. But, actually, we do know why we made that decision: because, as best we could tell, that was the superior choice in the situation. Indeed, limited information does not get us off the hook of free will! We still must keep choosing our way forward, despite incomplete knowledge of ourselves or the objective situation around us. That’s what our brains evolved to do—to make choices under radical uncertainty.

In my book, I also explain how conscious experience is “more than” just a brain process, and why processes at the level of conscious experience cannot simply be reduced to lower-level brain or biological processes. The basic argument is this: First, conscious experience is doubtless constituted by brain processes. Without a functioning brain, we can’t do anything, which is why I do not believe in life after death. Nevertheless, conscious experience is part of a top-down executive system that controls what happens in the brain. Conscious volitional processes, largely occurring within the medial prefrontal cortex, activate nonconscious brain networks, such as the default mode network and the salience network, in service of the questions posed within consciousness. Conscious processes are also intimately involved in our resulting decisions: “I want to do X, not Y.”

Let’s take an analogy. A computer program cannot run without a computer to run on—containing bits and bytes, circuitry, gating mechanisms, and so on. However, the bits and bytes don’t determine what the computer does—that is, they don’t direct the computer’s behavior. Rather, the program determines what the computer does, by controlling the machinery that it is provided: “First step a, then step b, then step c,” and so on.

Similarly, the conscious intentions that we form—the goals we set—control what our brains and bodies do. “I’ll start running every day” activates the brain’s motor system every morning at 8 a.m., causing the body’s physiology to accelerate between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m., and so on. Of course, sometimes we might feel lazy and skip the run; our intentions are not as reliable as command code!

If conscious intentions are like programs that run our biological computers, then who is the programmer of those intentions? A computer receives a program from outside, given by a human programmer. Where do people get their internal programs? Doubtless, sometimes from outside (as when a private in the army follows an order from an officer). But, even in this case, the private always chooses to follow the order, whether they realize it or not; and sometimes they don’t follow it, for various possible reasons. Indeed, soldiers are half expected not to follow evil or inhumane orders, or else they may be liable for committing war crimes. “I was only following orders” (the Nazi Nuremberg defense) sometimes works as an excuse, but not always.

What this suggests is that, ultimately, humans program themselves: We are self-directing and self-regulating beings. Of course, we may be very bad at this. We may fail to set intentions, or we may fail to successfully enact them. But just because setting and achieving goals can be difficult doesn’t mean that free will doesn’t exist. In my view, free will is inescapable, and our real problem is in learning to recognize it and to use it wisely and well.

Let’s try one more analogy, to better illustrate what I mean by “top-down control”: Corporations are run by chief executive officers (CEOs). CEOs have risen to the top of their corporate hierarchy, via various means and mechanisms. As CEOs, they set the goals for the corporation, thereby charting its direction. Like all humans, however, they may not be good at this. Just like people controlling their own bodies, CEOs don’t know everything that’s going on down in the ranks (i.e., within the body of the corporation). In fact, they can’t, because it’s too much information. But this doesn’t matter: They’re in control, nonetheless, via their achieved position in the organizational structure. If they are good at their jobs, they can get enough information to make sound choices for the organization.

I believe the CEO example is more than just an analogy: It illustrates a general evolutionary principle in which new levels of organization emerge from lower levels, with the job of regulating what goes on below. This general principle can be found at every level of organization within the person, from cellular processes up to organ processes up to brain processes up to personality processes. It also applies beyond the person, up to relational processes and to corporate, institutional, and cultural processes.

This “grand hierarchy” of human reality positions the conscious self at the center of the action—responsible for regulating (as best it can) what happens “down” in its brain and body, and, for regulating (as best it can) what happens “up” in its relationships with other people and social forces. A major problem for people is that social forces can threaten to take control of our decision-making, as in the private who thinks he must follow the order. But, even in this case, the private always has some degree of latitude, and, in most of our lives, we have a lot more.

Let me return to the title of this post: “Free Will Isn’t Independent of Biology; It's Enabled by It.” I hope you now see what I mean. Yes, it’s always our brain doing the choosing. But we conscious agents are the erstwhile controllers of that brain, in the same way that the computer program controls the computer. Thus, selves have a legitimate (indeed, an indispensable) status in the material universe. We are conscious, language-using beings, with imaginations that can escape the current reality, to simulate possible futures—and to select and work toward the possible future we want.

This leads us to the real question: Can we use our free will wisely? The answer, derived from research in personality and positive psychology, is “yes,” but it takes experience, reflection, and maturity to do so. Here’s my belief: If we have an ultimate purpose, this is it.


Harris, S. (2012). Free Will. New York, NY: Free Press.

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