Do Not Read This Article On Why You Don’t Have Free Will

She did it.

There is a certain charm in a fellow who can bring himself to write “We humans like to think of ourselves as mindful creatures” while intimating it isn’t so. Yet if we can think we are by definition mindful creatures. And therefore we cannot be automatons incapable of a sense of agency. Including the agency to write the paradoxical sentences.

Try this sense-of-agency experiment at home. Set up on one table a bunch of books or cans or whatever. And then, as quickly as you can, take them one at a time and place them on another table or shelf some distance away. As you’re doing this, think back to a time you have sinned and ask yourself what you would have done differently.

Do this first and then read on. Seriously. I mean it. Try.

Fun, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t trip and injure yourself and are therefore inclined to sue. But if you do, since I don’t have insurance and don’t have much else beside to sue for, you will be enriching your lawyer and not yourself.

Think back to the time of the experiment. Do you remember the conscious process of moving your legs? I don’t mean that you moved your leg, but the process of how you moved it. It went something like this.

You first using your agency sent signals from your brain, down the brain stem—remember doing this?—which traveled through the spine and emerging out somewhere around your hip. The signals went to some muscles around your right knee and lower leg; others signals, that you sent, don’t forget, went to your toes, the whole shebang coordinated to flex this group of muscles, relax those, and so your right foot pushed back against the ground.

As the pushing happened, signals from your foot and other places around your body, shot back to the brain, which coordinated them and said among other things, in brain language, “The center of gravity is off; we’re listing to port; adjust the right arm outward to counterbalance.” And we haven’t even got started on breathing, pumping blood, and more.

You, of course, directed each one of these signals, of which there were an enormous number. You were aware of them all. Yes?

On top of all that, you had to direct a mass of neurons to recollect your failing, and enlist a whole bunch more to muse on it, and still more to feel shame and a host of other regretful emotions; perhaps another small chunk of brain was devoted to saying a prayer asking for forgiveness.

Whew! What a lot of stuff that happened! Can you imagine what it would be like if we really were conscious machines, with a brain that really must be controlled in all its aspects by our agency, i.e. our will? It would be hellish, or, rather, it would be impossible.

None of our thoughts are like this. We have no idea what is going on over most of our bodies most of the time, and thank God for that. Our intellect and will are thus free to engage in higher pursuits, like in telling our bodies it’s cocktail hour. We then let our bodies take us where we need to go and do what we need to do so that our blood-alcohol levels do not drop to a dangerous low (as Rumpole would say).

…we retain an intense feeling that we’re in control of what we’re doing, what can be called a sense of agency. So where does this feeling come from?

It certainly doesn’t come from having access to the brain processes that underlie our actions. After all, I have no insight into the electrochemical particulars of how my nerves are firing or how neurotransmitters are coursing through my brain and bloodstream. Instead, our experience of agency seems to come from inferences we make about the causes of our actions, based on crude sensory data. And, as with any kind of perception based on inference, our experience can be tricked.

As with optical illusions. Neuropsychologists find these of great interest, as if they were new phenomena in our explanations of free will. Yet how often before computers could generate illusory pictures did we confidentally step into what we thought was small puddle only to discover it was black ice and thus fall on our keisters? Having agency does not mean sensing the world with perfection.

Frith says experiencing an optical illusion is “the same with our experience of agency. Our inferences can be wrong. I can believe that I am acting when it’s actually someone else. Or I can believe that someone else is acting when it’s actually me.”

As evidence of this curious suggestion Frith points to those hapless individuals who engaged in “facilitated communication“, folks who guided the hands of autistic children but who said they thought it was the kids doing the guiding. Same thing happens (sometimes) at Ouija boards and with dowsers. Yet fooling yourself (when it’s genuine and not pretended) is not that different from what happens when you run back and forth between tables. You’re not thinking about the specific body movements, but about something else.

“We have the strong impression that we choose when we do and don’t act and, as a consequence, we hold people responsible for their actions.” It is well to hold Frith responsible for writing this. Or would he like his paycheck be sent to another?

“Contrary to what many people believe, I think agency is only relevant to what happens after we act — when we try to justify and explain ourselves to each other.” The possibility of mistaken explanations does not invalidate correct explanations, which Frith must agree with, else who wrote that passage?

A consensus need not be accurate to be attractive or useful, of course. For a long time everyone agreed that the Sun went round the Earth. Perhaps our sense of agency is a similar trick: it might not be ‘true’, but it maintains social cohesion by creating a shared basis for morality. It helps us understand why people act as they do — and, as a result, makes it is easier to predict people’s behaviour.

This is confirmation that all attempts to run from free will boil down to this (what we can call) self-contradictory Frithian statement: we must agree that we cannot make choices so that we can make better choices.


  1. Mindful doesn’t mean Free Will. So I can be mindful, which is taking into account other people’s need, and have Free Will, which is deliberately choosing some particular course of action.

  2. One’s sense of agency is, I believe, the major piece of evidence for free will. There is a report (I can find the reference right now) of a Montreal surgeon who was doing surgery on the brain, trying to correct seizures. He would probe different parts of the brain electrically and, at some points actions would occur (the patient was conscious). For example, when one part of the brain was stimulated the patient would lift his arm. The patient reported, however, that he had the sense of the arm being moved by itself, not by his agency. There are also the Libet type experiments, which have been used as evidence against and for free will.
    Finally, there is a quantum mechanical theorem, the Conway-Kochen Free Will theorem that asserts that if humans have free will, so do the fundamental particles on which they perform experiments. (That is to say, how the particles behave is not predetermined by their past history.) See here:
    It’s giving me the spam message once again.

  3. All of this is fascinating as a intellectual diversion (this is a family blog or I’d use the term we actually used for it) at 2 AM in a college dorm when you’re trying to figure out how to write a paper for the world’s most draconian professor. In life, it’s just meaningless drivel.

    Why do people engage in it? Well, for religion, free will is necessary. For some unknown reason, religion somehow thinks it must justify said belief via science or logic. That presupposes that it’s an important clarification and that the “other side” has a valid reason to question it. That gives legitimacy to the secular attacks on religion that are actually paper tigers.

    For secular persons, reason number one is probably to damn religion. That does appear to be the lifeblood of atheists. They are more dogged in their pursuit of destroying what they do not like than even Obama was (to date anyway). Outside of that, it is used as a reason to allow criminals and crazy to kill, maim, and create anarchy becuase “it’s not their fault”. On the other hand, that logic is lost when a baker refuses to bake a cake for a gay couple. That’s hate speech (which cannot be punished if we do not have free will). It’s a great “We get our way and let bad behaviour occur, but only the bad behaviour we want. Otherwise, suddenly free will jumps in and you’re going to jail”. Taken to it’s logical (logic doesn’t really exist if we don’t have free will, but overlook that for a bit) conclusion, there can be no laws, no society except that which is maintained purely by instinct, as in the animal kingdom. There’s the “fudge factor” where we are all on a holodeck in Star Trek and playing out our parts (one could argue that’s a religious viewpoint also if you believe in predetermination, though punishment cannot be metted out to sinners in that case). All in all, an easily used and abused excuse for bad behaviour to be excused when YOU want it to be and damned if YOU don’t. (Yep, no “free will” there, nope, nada, none…….)

    Anyway, whether or not I have the free will to remove the small dog laying behind me in my chair (her cute face is an argument for no free will, trust me), my hands are going to sleep typing with her laying on my spine, so either freely or not, I have to take action. This is all fascinating and perfectly useless as a philosophy or any type of argument. We don’t know, we can not know, but humans never really care about that. They just make things up to suit themselves and argue over these things as if they matter. Animals are more direct—they just chew each other up. Humans at least yell back and forth generally before direct action. All for what one can never really know. Impossible never did stop humans from thinking they can know or do something, did it?

  4. Hans

    I think you need to rethink or rephrase that

    If you cannot “will” what you “want”, you have no “Free Will”

    But if you HAVE a “choice” you can “choose”

    If you can’t choose you have no “Free Choice”

    But then if you can’t choose because you can’t decide that’s something different!

  5. I never read articles by individuals lacking free will because, obviously, they didn’t either choose the topic or write the words. Like those benighted beings who are nothing more than gigantic meat robots designed for catering to the whims of DNA molecules, such persons (if we may legitimately call them persons without too doing much damage to the language) are to be pitied.

  6. All eukaryotic life forms are robots, robots made of meat, created over a period of 3 billion years by bacteria. The bacteria do not have to have conscious minds to do the creating. Just like some orchids make imitation hymenopterans to attract real ones, the bacteria have made complex machines without being mindful. And what is the benefit to the bacteria of creating these robots? The robots carry bacteria into regions where they could not thrive previously. Remember, over 90% of the cells in a human are bacterial cells.

    A good robot does not know it is a robot. It just follows the program that its creator installed. A good robot can also have flexibility in responding to its environment. In our arrogant delusional state we sometimes call this flexibility free will.

  7. This discussion is wrong-headed from the outset. “Free will” is a strictly theological category. It refers to our ability to be responsible. Which is to say, Man has free will, because he can sin. “Free will” is the ability to deliberately offend God – to sin – and conversely, the ability to deliberately assist God in fulfilling His will. Period.

    This is why a ‘philosophical’ discussion of the matter will be endless. The categories of philosophies are inadequate to the subject.

    A ‘philosophical’ or strictly ‘natural’ discussion of free will is preposterous, because it must – it must – treat of Fallen nature as normative – as if the Fall didn’t really happen. St. Thomas is simply a premiere exemplar of this devastating methodological error. Devising a ‘philosophical’ system that pretends to find “free will” absent the full weight and significance of the Savior and the Cross is not only a fool’s errand, it drastically underestimates both the Fall, and the power of the Savior and the full meaning of His Sacrifice.

    The First Adam did not possess his free will by which we Fell as some prior ‘philosophical’ category discovered by Aristotle. The First Adam was fully responsible, he had free will, but solely in and through the First Adam’s consubstantiality with the complete, integral humanity of the Second Adam.

    In this Fallen world, we will find our now wounded and wayward ‘free will’ only in the Cross, by which the Fall is defeated. Put differently, the only free will we can ever possess comes through the titanic Sacrifice and Victory of the Savior.

    We have our ‘free will’ surely, only, and totally in Him, as an unmerited Grace; in the former days, within the implicit promise of the proto-Evangelium, and now and forever through our renewed consubstantiality with His complete, integral humanity, poured out upon us at Calvary. And any ‘philosophical’ treatment that does not depend utterly on these facts is not merely inadequate, it is ridiculous.

    We have “free will” as the ability to turn away from God, even so far as to lose Him forever, or to turn towards Him, even so far as to gain Him forever; as with the First Adam, “free will” is our ability to truly break the world, or to truly build it in Him.

    We can find our “free will” – anyone can – but not as ‘philosophy’, but solely within the Eucharistic Event; only within the mystery of His separated Body and Blood within time, offered as unbloody Sacrifice every day until time itself shall end. All the other ‘free wills’ on offer are chimeras, founded on vapors, illusions, even if we console ourselves that they are ‘philosophical’, even if we seek them endlessly.

    In the end, we have our freedom, our responsibility, in the Cross of Christ, or we do not have it. Sometimes Christians even say that, but apparently in reality we think our freedom to be responsible or not to God is founded in something less absurd and more ‘natural’; apparently we do not believe our free will is really solely available in the Cross of Christ; for even St. Thomas was unable to take that methodologically seriously.

  8. One of the nearly sure signs of cognitive dissonance is the application of an all-or-nothing way of addressing an issue they find troubling. For example someone proposes that some authorities on a school campus should be allowed to carry firearms (e.g. some teachers, principle, etc.) and a person fearful of firearms twists that into the rebuttal of an extreme argument that was never made (e.g., that giving everybody guns would be dangerous).

    Briggs does that here with free will, or lack thereof.

    The issue is very well known and manifests is readily measurable/observable ways — the issues isn’t an either/or proposition, the reality is ‘how much’ do we really have vs what we think.

    One good example is so-called “Choice Blindness” — people can be easily tricked into making choices, and the effect of the choice manipulated into something that was rejected…and the target person will, almost every time, concoct a rationalization for why they made a choice (what was presented) when in fact they rejected that choice entirely. Some examples:

  9. JohnK’s reply sounds like something approaching the right idea.
    Adam and Eve’s sin was disobedience. I hear so many talking about serpents and reference to sex. Reading it recently it doesn’t say what people claim. Not remotely.
    Eve eats the fruit of the forbidden tree in the centre of the garden.
    She offers some to Adam. He eats the fruit.
    God asks if
    “though hadst eaten the fruit of the tree that I said though shouldest not eat?”
    Adam blames Eve!
    Eve blames the serpent!
    Disobedience and failure to take responsibility right there. Blaming others and lying.
    So the sin is demonstrated to have multiplied in short time.
    That started with disobedience.
    That’s what I took from the passage. Nothing about sex. The realising of the nakedness is shame of the sin.

  10. My Will wasn’t free. The invoice from my lawyer listed it at $250. I’ve gotten the importation that a free one isn’t possible.

  11. A human being contemplates while riding a lizard upon a lotus growing from the land. IOW, as Aquinas noted, not every act of a man is a human act. It may well be that very few acts are voluntary (freely willed in the philosophical, rather than the political, sense). But a difference may be minute yet enormously important. As has been pointed out before, the difference between the perfect Platonic circles and the actual ellipses followed by the planets are virtually undetectable, but they are rather important in the system of the world. Ask Kepler.

    When a man plummets from a cliff, he may not have freely willed it as Butch and Sundance (or Thelma and Louise) did, but nonetheless will fall as determined by inexorable laws of physics applied to the inanimate matter of which he is made.

    When a man’s cells grow and diversify, he does not will it. Indeed, he may be as unaware as a plant that such things are even happening. He does not grunt and concentrate and will his seed (or her egg) to grow. It just happens.

    Nor does he will himself to breathe or his heart to beat or his eye to see or his ear to hear and so on. He does not will himself to feel hunger or fear or revulsion or desire or other emotions or be impelled by them to move toward or away from the objects of sensation like any other animal.

    There are even, more subtly, habituated acts. I once walked home from the dry cleaners — about two blocks where I once lived — but I started thinking about a statistical question. The next thing I knew I was standing by the back door where my key had just missed going into the keyhole and thus demanded my whole attention. All the rest of the homewalking had been done on pure instinct. Take away the part that had been thinking-about-something-else and you have not a rational animal but simply a stimulus-response animal.

    Voluntary acts arise because it is impossible to desire (or avoid) what you do not know; and since our knowledge is inherently imperfect, our will (desire/intellective appetite) has “play” or “degrees of freedom” and is not determined to any one particular means to achieve (what seems to us to be) the good.

    This may not sound like libertarian or infantile free will; but as the Stones prophesied: “You can’t always get what you want.”

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