Free will? It’s a no brainer

nobrainerImagine that you cannot see or hear and have no sense of smell, taste or touch. Imagine that you have no arms or legs or mouth. Imagine that you have no brain. How would you find food? How would you survive?

On his blog, Matt Russell tells the story of how bacteria manage to survive and thrive despite not having any of the basic tools that we would consider essential for living. It’s a story of survival against the odds that can perhaps teach us something about ourselves.

Being a bacterium’s a bummer. You’re swimming along, minding your own business and pesky water molecules keep bumping into you, moving you about. One minute there’s plenty of food available, the next it’s gone. Life seems so unfair. The answer? Just get on with it!


Salmonella bacteria up close. Go wash your hands!

But how? How do you know where the food is? Well, despite having none of the five senses that humans have, those resourceful bacteria can sense their surroundings rather well. In fact they can detect a variation of a few sugar molecules in a liquid with 1,000,000,000,0000 sugar molecules. And they can react to this variation, changing direction to move towards the food. A bacterium uses proteins that bind to specific molecules creating chemical changes that cause it to move or change direction.

Is this thinking? Does the bacterium have free will? How can it think or have free will if it has no brain? Isn’t it just a biological machine that moves around because of chemical reactions taking place? There’s nothing else going on.


But wait. Isn’t that what happens in the human brain too?

Our human minds construct complex mental models of ourselves and our environment and access all kinds of memories whenever we make decisions. But that’s nothing more than fancy data manipulation. Underneath, it’s just biochemistry. We are  a lot more complicated than bacteria for sure, but are we fundamentally different?


Are we just automata, responding to external events in a predictable, deterministic way? On this blog I previously argued that free will is compatible with determinism, and so I like to think that bacteria are more than just dumb chemical factories too. If you view the world from a bacterium’s point of view instead of a reductionist one, the situation looks different. It’s no longer about proteins and chemical reactions – it’s about food and the quest for survival.

Bacteria don’t just respond to their environment. They change it. They don’t let the water molecules push them about. They won’t stay still and starve to death – they go looking for food. Matt explains in his blog how bacteria even communicate with each other in order to exchange information about their surroundings and make collective decisions.

They are movers and shakers, imposing their needs on the world of dumb matter that surrounds them. They are awesome little dudes.

Is this free will? The bacterium confronts problems and it makes choices. It’s not easily fooled. It may lack a sense of self-awareness, in other words it may not be conscious, but it’s fundamentally different from non-life. It possesses a magical, emergent property called intelligence, even if it has no brain.

But do they (or us) possess free will? As fellow blogger SelfAwarePatterns asks, free of what?


Perhaps the philosophical problem of free will is one that seems vitally important but is simply a non-question that hasn’t been properly thought through.

Is free will an ill-defined concept that unravels as you look more closely at it? Is the question of whether free will exists simply unanswerable? Is it an example of what Richard Dawkins just recently discussed – a problem that we created for ourselves because of a simple-minded desire to classify and give names to things that defy classification?

I certainly don’t know the answer. I’m going to let you decide 😉

Thanks to Matt and Mike for inspiring this post. Your blogs were so interesting, I had no choice but to respond 🙂

42 responses to “Free will? It’s a no brainer

  1. Thanks Steve. I’m grateful for, and honored by the link. An excellent post!

    I think free will is definitely a philosophical outlook question, rather than a scientific one. A large part of the question is agreeing on a definition of it.

    • I hope a few people head over to your excellent blog. I am coming round to thinking about free will as a matter of outlook and perhaps just an irrelevance (I mean philosophically speaking.) Maybe it isn’t one of the big questions after all.

      • Man has been in existence for such a long time, and still doesn’t understand himself. Same way bacteria have no awareness of themselves. I believe though, that if we accept ourselves as we are, we will come to terms with settling the question about free will. Again, people will move the discussion to a different direction, about belief in deity or no deity, about us being just another animal with complex chemical processes, about so many schools of thoughts that contradict each other, the discussion goes in circles without getting to an agreeable principle because each has his own doctrine to preach. End of the day, we just shrug it off, leave them be, give respect to where respect is due, live our happy little life still trying to figure out which came first, the egg or the chicken because we are too wrapped up in acceptance only of things which we can provide solid evidence of. We forgot that the evidence is ourselves.

  2. There you go… you got me on a train that is going in three directions at the same time. Wrap you brain around this one if you can (friendly, I mean). Hahaaaa!!
    First: Bacteria are everything but dumb.
    Second: Free will is something that generates knots in my neurons… and as much as I love Sam Harris… when it comes to free will… I can only see huge contradictions in his arguments. (Ok, maybe I will write a post on it some day.)
    Third: Even if, on the surface of things, it has not much to do with free will, I highly recommend you “Thinking fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman. What looks like a study of intuition bumps right against something called “priming” in psychology and that’s where the real questions begin. If priming can generate behavior that is almost “imposed”, free will becomes – at least for me – something along the lines of “wishful thinking”.
    I really hope I don’t sound upset or something. I just read too much on the subject… maybe… Anyway, good idea!

  3. That was a fun and imaginative article. I love the visual imagery. I would love to take a microbiology class for the fun of it.

    I’m curious, Steve. You advocate against Christianity the way fanatical Christians advocate against, well, everyone else. I’m curious as to why you are so vocal. The three core emotions are hurt, fear, and happiness. Our every motivation is centered on these three.

    Questions for you to consider to put your mind at rest:

    What do you fear from the Christian sect?
    How have you been hurt by the Christian sect?
    Has someone you know been hurt by the Christian sect?
    Does it make you happy to invalidate the idea of Christianity?
    Are you arrogant enough to believe you are right so that you are poking fun at Christians, and poking fun makes you happy?
    Are you afraid of dying, having your life mean nothing, so much that you want to believe in a God who loves you and wishes to make you immortal? Are you hoping someone will prove you wrong?

    I hope this helps you find peace, because it is obvious that this subject is one that is “keeping you awake at night.”


    On another topic, check out Eric’s new article.

    • I think he wants to be enlightened by being logically beaten to dust. If, and only then, will he give in.

      (and btw, I just thought it was a little mean to confront someone so blatantly and so casually.)

      • Yes, I am seeking enlightenment, and yes, I want to be logically beaten to dust if I write things that are wrong. Sometimes I write about questions that are on my mind, sometimes I write about things I already know. I write for myself as much as for anyone else.

        But I am always grateful for any comments on my blog, and in fact I have written ruder and more blatant comments on Heather’s blog.)

      • Yeah. It’s that analytical part of me that forgets to feel, but it comes out like tough love…usually. I say things with the intent to jolt people into awareness. I treat myself the same way. I don’t coddle myself. I’m a “face it, suck it up” kind of person. I suppose I could work on having a softer side, but if you look at the poem on my home page you will see that I am working to fight against a darker side every day. I often say that if it wasn’t for Jesus Christ that I would be a serial killer and I mean it. I was a raging, mad person for a very long time and I keep that monster on a tight leash. I am INFJ, so was Jesus Christ, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. But then there was Adolf Hitler. So abrasively concerned is angelic in comparison to my alternative.

        Steve is not at peace and I’d like to help him face it. Contact me anytime and what we discuss will be confidential. Integrity is of utmost importance to me.

    • Thank you Heather, but this article isn’t about Christianity.

      Anyway, to answer your questions:
      1. What do you fear from the Christian sect?
      That people will continue to believe in the supernatural.

      2. How have you been hurt by the Christian sect?
      Not at all.

      3. Has someone you know been hurt by the Christian sect?

      4. Does it make you happy to invalidate the idea of Christianity?
      Yes. And lots of other ideas too.

      5. Are you arrogant enough to believe you are right so that you are poking fun at Christians, and poking fun makes you happy?
      Yes, my personality type is INTJ (you taught me this), so I *know* that I am right 🙂 Quote – “To outsiders, INTJs may appear to project an aura of “definiteness”, of self-confidence. This self-confidence, sometimes mistaken for simple arrogance by the less decisive, is actually of a very specific rather than a general nature; its source lies in the specialized knowledge systems that most INTJs start building at an early age.”

      6.Are you afraid of dying, (Yes) having your life mean nothing, (Yes) so much that you want to believe in a God who loves you and wishes to make you immortal? (No) Are you hoping someone will prove you wrong? (Always, for this is how we learn if our beliefs our true or false.)

      • Heather, since you ask me directly why religion bothers me so much, let me give you a direct answer. You say we are motivated by hurt, fear, and happiness. My motivation is fear.

        I care passionately about ideas.I hate ideas that are simply wrong. That’s my intellectual hang-up. I can’t let things go.

        Ideas have consequences. Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews because of an idea. Mao destroyed China because of an idea. Ideas are the source of all the truly great evil in our world.

        What is the most far-reaching idea of all time? Religion. Now do you understand my passion?

      • Are you sure this is not about God? On a subconscious level then? The entire article is about free will and the postulation that we don’t have it? The Bible states that God gives us free will… And you abhor Christianity. There’s a connection. And I am INFJ.

        • I implicitly rejected the notion of mind-body duality, as I don’t think that worth considering. So not subconscious, but implicit 🙂 I think you were the one who introduced God into the discussion 🙂

          The Bible was written thousands of years before anyone knew about bacteria or neurons. And I don’t abhor Christianity. Jesus said many wonderful things. I abhor the idea that people believe in God. I love Lord of the Rings, but I would be appalled if anyone believed that elves and hobbits were real 🙂

  4. If I end up in therapy because of that tentacled Salmonella image I’ll be forwarding you the bills … and yes, I immediately washed my hands – thoroughly. Thanks 🙂

    • Yes, I ate a chicken curry last night and I couldn’t stop worrying about those tentacles. Have you read any HP Lovecraft? Don’t!

      • Thanks for the tip – your post sent me back to reread:

        ‘The incoherence of free will’

        … and if Pigliucci is accurately portraying Dennett’s “free will worth having” in the last paragraph, and I presume he is, that strikes me as rather odd, but then I can’t claim much sophistication in my philosophical thinking. Anyway, here’s something you may also find of interest:

        ‘Free Will Is Un-natural’, Bargh 2008

        Click to access FreeWillIsUnnatural.pdf

        ‘Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation Lab’

        Lots of interesting reading in the ‘Publications’ section. It’s Bargh’s work on priming that Kahneman references in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and I’ll 2nd ‘tresbienq’s recommendation. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

        • Some heavy stuff there, amanimal, but I think I’m broadly in Daniel Dennett’s camp and a compatibilist. I also like what Douglas Hofstadter has written on the subject, and I think that the idea of “substrate-independent” brains are a useful way of reconciling determinism with free will. But I’m not a philosopher, just a simple-minded physicist.

        • “… the idea of “substrate-independent” brains …”

          Hmm, I’ll have to look into that – thanks!

  5. Oops! I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed Russell’s post – again, thanks!

  6. You say bacterium, I say Kardashian.

  7. Why is survival an instinct? Why does it matter?

    Your blog just makes me think that I believe in too many things out of emotion, and not logic (and I thought I was a rational person.)

    • Evolution tells us that survival must be the most dominant instinct of all, otherwise none of us could even exist.

      Why does it matter? Logically it doesn’t. That is the curse of having a logical mind.

      But I think that emotion is where we must look to find purpose in life and that logic is just a tool. Hume wrote, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

      If you built a logical robot, why would it ever do anything? What, logically, would be its purpose? It would have none.

      Does the universe have a purpose? I think not. But we can give it one, created out of nothing, through our own will and imagination. Isn’t that a miracle?

  8. I’m pleased to see that this article is of interest to people. I thought it was going to be one of my nerdy posts that gets politely ignored.

  9. Oh. And I don’t think bacterium have free will because the biological components are attracted to the source of nutrience needed for survival. Think of other brainless attractions, like magnets. But humans, we have free will. We have a choice. I gave an example in one of my replies. I have been abused in a way that altered my psyche toward the worst kind of abuse and of course I fantasize about abusing other monsters only but the same abuse gifted me with the knowledge of human fragility and a distinct compassion for those who are vulnerable. I “choose” compassion.

  10. I was thinking. I will go as far as to say that during early childhood development, children have not fully developed the cognitive process so they do not have free will, but once a person reaches adulthood and they have full cognitive ability then they have free will because they are aware that they have it.

  11. Ha ha great post Steve! Did you buy something for valentines for your wife though? Do not try to pretend you have free will and avoid the issue. And if you did not get her anything can you imagine the misery? My husband bought me a ring, which we neither need or can afford, but we love it god damn it! 🙂

  12. if the bacterium are so clever, because they are, able to create “community” to work together, specialized, to devote himself… so probably the bacterium harmful to us (predators) are even more devious. so conclusion is probably that fighters of our immune system, also small and independent units, are even more clever. because we still live! … about our free will … how precious it is best know companies (ad) which spend billions to implement us even better version…

  13. Yes, it’s all-out war for survival – both at the cellular level and at the corporate scale!

  14. I agree with Mike ::> “I think free will is definitely a philosophical outlook question, rather than a scientific one. A large part of the question is agreeing on a definition of it.”

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