We Have Free Will (But It Takes Willpower)



We Have Free Will (But It Takes Willpower) 1

Whether or not we have free will is a surprisingly controversial topic. It seems obvious that we do from our subjective experience, but it’s possible to show that there are many times when we think we are behaving from free will but are actually just following conditioned responses. I grant that point, but I think the crux of the matter is: do we always behave that way? There is a good overview of the topic here.

One of the major arguments against free will is that in a deterministic universe as predicted by classical (Newtonian) physics, everything is predestined. An incredibly fast supercomputer, that knew exactly all the details of how the universe started in the Big Bang, could in principle compute the entire future of the universe, including all of our actions. But even if the universe were entirely deterministic, science is now aware of the phenomenon of chaos, in which slight changes in initial conditions of nonlinear systems (the universe is most assuredly nonlinear) cause large changes in outcome. This is exemplified by the saying “a butterfly beating its wings in China can change the next day’s weather in Brazil”. And then there is quantum mechanics, introducing inherent randomness, at least at the subatomic level. This could provide some wiggle room for free choice. There is a good review for non-scientists in the book The Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by physics professors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner. The authors point out that there are many popular nonsensical pseudoscientific notions about quantum mechanics bandied about, so they try to explain the science while still letting some of its puzzling implications show through. Many neuroscientists argue that quantum mechanics has no bearing on how consciousness works in the brain because it is a “hot wet environment”, but the authors give arguments as to why it might still be relevant. Two recent scientific articles here and here also have interesting evidence on this subject. Finally, I came across this interesting discussion about why modern physics and biology contradict the non-free-will prediction of classical physics.

There are a couple of other main reasons given for doubting free will, however. The first is along these lines: I think I am choosing, but in fact, there is no “I”, it is an illusion. Specifically, what psychologists call the “self” or “ego” or what neuroscientists might call an “executive control module” is an illusion. Evidence for this is that fMRIs of the brain, which indicate what regions are active, show no consistent result while we are thinking or acting. Instead, it appears that “coalitions” are continuously forming and dissolving among multiple regions of the brain. Interestingly, this argument appears on the surface to agree with the claims of some spiritual traditions, such as the Buddhist doctrine of “no self” or the Hindu concept that of a “false self” we have to transcend to discover our “true self”.

But these traditions don’t stop there. They go on to say that when we quiet our minds and get past the “false self”, we discover our true nature. Spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran explained this as follows [1]: Many people know the famous quote from Descartes Cogito Ergo Sum, translated as “I think, therefore I am”. But you are not your thoughts, you can learn to watch them during meditation. And when you get experienced with this, you notice that in the silence between thoughts, there is still a “you” passively observing. So as Easwaran put it, perhaps it should be “I have stopped thinking, therefore I am”. I’ve discussed the recent finding from neuroscience about the “default mode” of the brain, from which a lot of our constant mental chatter arises. This mode can be calmed, and your mind gets a lot quieter. But there is still a “you” there.

A second argument against free will is that we often behave instinctively and later rationalize our actions. Like “I meant to eat that cookie, even though I said I wasn’t going to eat cookies anymore. It was fine just this once because I went for a run earlier today”. This argument about our rationalizing behavior is then taken to the extreme that we never make rational decisions, we are driven by our animal instincts and then rationalize. Always. For evidence of this, the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s are often cited. These seemed to show that the electrical signal to subject’s muscles came before their conscious decision to move. Problems with these experiments and their interpretation are discussed here. But whether or not the Libet experiments prove anything, I’m willing to concede there is ample evidence that we often behave as if we are automatons. For example, how about when you are driving on your day off and you automatically take the exit to work out of habit? Psychologist Daniel Wegner was able to show various situations in which subjects thought they were consciously choosing when they were not. This is discussed in detail here, but does not, in my opinion, prove that this happens all the time. So I’m not willing to concede that there is proof that we never behave with free will.

We Have Free Will (But It Takes Willpower) 2

There is a very good discussion of this in the book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley. Dr. Schwartz works with patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He explains how this stems from faulty circuitry in the brain. OCD sufferers feel helpless as they know they are doing compulsive behavior but are powerless to stop it. Yet despite this, through heroic effort they can learn to cure this behavior, using a type of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. Essentially, by “putting their minds to it” consistently, they can change their brains. In my opinion, this is an amazing demonstration of free will.

Even those of us without OCD can often behave compulsively. Eating junk food when we know it is not good for us is a great example. So I’d be glad to admit that when we give in and eat the junk food, we are behaving without free will. But when we fight off the temptation, we are using free will. That is where I got “but it takes willpower” in the title of this post.

Dr. Schwartz gives a fascinating theory for how this works based on the work of physicist Henry Stapp [2], with whom he has collaborated: free will requires us to concentrate on what we are trying to “will”. This causes a phenomenon called the “quantum Zeno effect” (which is like “a watched pot never boils” taken to the quantum realm). When this effect acts in the brain, it causes the appropriate neurons to either fire or not fire. Whether or not this particular theory is valid, I definitely buy the result that we can have free will when we “put our minds to it”. And as pointed out here, Benjamin Libet himself suggested that our awareness of volition occurs in time to veto actions.

This is intuitively known in various ways in popular culture, when we are taught, for example, to avoid a “knee-jerk reaction”. Or to avoid reflexively saying something that we may regret, we “bite our tongues”.

This amount of free will is more than enough to allow us to change for the better. This is the basis for self-transformation, which I believe is the key to genuine happiness.


  1. Easwaran, E, The Bhagavad Gita For Daily Living, Nilgiri Press, 2010.
  2. Stapp, H, Quantum Theory and Free Will: How Mental Intentions Translate into Bodily Actions, Springer, 2017.