Do we possess free will?

freewillIf you imagine that the human brain is like a giant computer, you may arrive at the conclusion that we don’t possess free will. After all, computers just follow a set of instructions. And if you think that the brain is made of atoms that follow deterministic laws, then you’ll arrive at the same conclusion. But are we more than just simple machines?

I’m not a believer in a “soul” or some other kind of supernatural “ghost in the machine”. If you believe that, then you can believe literally anything.

Nor do I subscribe to Roger Penrose’s proposal that the randomness of quantum mechanics allows a loophole by which free will can enter. If you argue that the behaviour of the brain is based on randomness, that just leads you to the conclusion that our thinking is determined by random physical processes instead of deterministic ones. It isn’t an argument in favour of free will.

Yet, the logic that says we are just deterministic machines governed by the behaviour of the atoms that make up our brain is a fallacy. It’s the fallacy of reductionism.

Suppose I read a joke and I find it funny. I laugh out loud. In my brain a lot is happening. Neurons are firing. Chemical and electrical signals are shooting everywhere. Proteins are shifting around. An unimaginable number of atoms are doing things they weren’t doing before I read the joke.

brain activity

What caused that? Did the atoms in my brain do it? Or did the joke (which exists outside my brain on a computer screen) do it? Or is it best explained in terms of high-level concepts and understandings in my mind?

I think the latter is the best way to explain what happened.

Let’s look at it another way. Can physics explain how some photons bounced off my computer screen, entered my eye and triggered a huge amount of electro-chemical activity in my brain and central nervous system, resulting in my body creating sound waves of laughter? Well it can, but not easily, and it isn’t the right kind of explanation.


A better explanation would involve concepts like “joke” and “funny” and “laugh”, rather than concepts like “atom” and “chemical” and “photon”.

In other words, do moving atoms in my brain create my thoughts, or do thoughts in my mind cause atoms to move around my brain?

If you think of the mind as an entity comprised of thoughts and concepts, that cause chemical reactions to occur in the brain, then you can easily imagine that we do have free will after all.


8 responses to “Do we possess free will?

  1. I think you’re on the right track. One way of spotting the reductionistic fallacy is to imagine a determinist saying something like this: “I don’t believe I caused myself to do that, I think my brain caused myself to do that.” Well yes, but whose brain is it? It’s yours! So you did cause yourself to do that!

    The truth is, I am a determinist. I don’t believe that we have free will in the way most people define that term. Where I differ – and maybe I’m like you – is that I don’t really think the way most people define free will makes it an interesting thing worth thinking about. I don’t have access to the activities of the interacting parts of myself – the neurons and the synapses and the ion channels and the neurotransmitters. I have access to my thoughts and my behaviors. From that perspective, I think what I think and I do what I do, and that’s enough.

    • Thanks NeuroProf. Of course this is just an idea. I cannot know for sure, and I’m not even 100% certain that I believe we have free will. I’m just putting the idea on the table. And in practical terms we have so many constraints (hunger, fatigue, desire, fear) on our behaviour that it probably doesn’t matter. But who knows? Maybe it’s critically important. I’m just thinking out loud.

  2. Interesting. Have you read Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life? In it he suggests not that we have an immaterial soul but that the sum of our parts is greater than the parts themselves. Also, from a philosophical perspective, Jonathan Edwards (a pastor in the 1700’s and acknowledge as one of the brighter minds America has produced) wrote Freedom of the Will in which he takes a deterministic stance…it is difficult but interesting reading.

    • No, I haven’t read it. But the idea that we are more than the sum of our parts? Certainly, since our parts are merely inanimate matter. It’s all about patterns and structures and emergent behaviour.

      I can’t claim to have invented this idea myself. I first came across it reading Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am a Strange Loop”, which everyone should have one their bookshelf, if only for the title! It’s a very interesting read, provided that you’re willing to tackle Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.


    To be serious about this you need to read and think for yourself. The URL above is what I think about this topic. Let me know. Blessings, Bob

    • Bob, thanks for your input. It’s clearly not something I agree with, but what I do absolutely support is the desirability of free discussion. If you read this blog you’ll find that I don’t believe in God, or “the Adversary”, or in “sinful arrogant man.” I do believe that we’re all doing the best we can under difficult circumstances. You can call that sin if you want to.

  4. Pingback: Free will? It’s a no brainer | Blog Blogger Bloggest

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