Freewill & Determinism

It is the coward and the fool who says this is his fate.
But it is the strong man who stands up and says I will make my own fate.

- Swami Vivekananda

We are each dealt a particular biology, psychological history, and current social environment. From these parts emerges a new entity—the Psyche—with attributes that did not exist before. Even the neuron, as remarkable and complex a structure as it is, does not possess consciousness. Experiential phenomena emerge from the activities of many neurons. Opinions, actions and will are properties of the Psyche but do not exist within any of its component parts.  

Some individuals have good cognitive abilities and are able to predict the likely outcome of making one choice versus another. Nevertheless, they may knowingly choose a less rewarding alternative over a more rewarding one. The technical term for this perverse tendency is impulsivity. Cognitive impairments reduce the ability to weigh uncertain risks and make prudent decisions, and therefore lead to an increased likelihood that the individual will act counter to his or her interests For example, individuals with damage to the frontal lobes of the brain due to chronic alcohol abuse, accident, or stroke are less able to over-ride the influence of local conditions.

Dependence occurs when the individual becomes unable to control incentive use despite its obvious destructive consequences. There may be sincere attempts to quit or cut down; nevertheless the individual predictably relapses, resulting in the scold of self and others: “Don’t you have any willpower?”

What is willpower? Do you have enough of it to over-ride the deterministic, cause-and-effect principles that promote dependence on an external source of control (the addictive incentive)?


Freewill refers to the idea that we have the ability to influence our actions intentionally. The contrasting view, Determinism, holds that we actually have no free will because all of our decisions and actions are completely determined by cause-and-effect principles, though they may be unknowable to us. The experience that we have free will, according to this view, is merely an illusion.

Consider the turkey; it doesn’t have free will yet it provides excellent care for its young. A turkey spends much time warming and cleaning her young, but this complex behavior is triggered by one thing—the “cheep cheep” sound of her chicks. If the chick makes that sound, the mother will care for it; otherwise she will ignore it. In a research project, a polecat, the turkey’s natural enemy, was stuffed with a tape recording of the “cheep cheep” sound. When the stuffed pole cat was pulled by a string to approach the turkey she attacked it viciously, but when the taped sound was turned on, the turkey not only did not attack it, but gathered it under her to comfort it. When the sound was turned off, she again attacked it.*

Unlike turkeys, whose behavior is determined by specific aspects of their immediate environment, some humans are able to set long-range goals, develop plans, and make adjustments to their plan until their goal is achieved.  They appear to have an intentional influence over the course of their life. Advocates of free will argue that a new phenomenon emerged with human cognition, which makes us fundamentally different from turkeys. Alternatively, determinists argue that it may just seem that way because we are so much more complex than turkeys.

We cannot resolve the free will debate by simply asking people whether they intended to do something or not, because we cannot be sure whether the intention led to the behavior or the behavior led to the experience of intention. The subjective experience of free will is not evidence for its existence. We can never be sure that A causes B, as there could always be a third variable C that causes both of them. While it seems that our intentions cause our actions, there may be causes of which we are unaware that produce both of them. In fact, there is evidence** that even before we are aware of the intention to perform an action, the neural precursors of the action have already occurred. Subjects were told to note the time on a clock when they made the decision to press a button, and then to press the button. They took 0.2 seconds on average to press the button after they decided to do so. EEG monitoring of their brain waves, however, revealed a spike 0.3 seconds before they decided to press the button.

There is a middle position: Libertarianism. This view holds that human behavior is determined by many causes, including biological factors, psychological conditioning, and current social pressures, but this very causality provides the opportunity for us to have an intentional influence on how things play out. The more we discover about the cause-and-effect relationships, the more power we have to impose our will upon the world. Even if willful control of our immediate behavior is an illusion, you can use your appreciation of cause-and-effect relationships to intentionally change the course of your life.

While it is obviously possible to exercise will in the Libertarian sense, it is taxing. Moreover, you cannot intentionally guide behavior every moment, because you often need to focus on other things. Autonomous behavior is often beneficial—consider the advantages of touch typing. The path of least resistance is only harmful when it leads to bad outcomes such as relapse.

Acting as intended during high-risk moments requires special training, because you will not have access to the cognitive resources you will need to intentionally guide behavior. As is the case for a professional fighter, it is important to rehearse the intended coping responses so you can perform them automatically during stressful times.

Exercising will in a deterministic world

Consider the game of chess, with its simple deterministic rules. There are many ways a particular game can unfold, and players often make surprising and unpredictable moves. You cannot use the rules alone to predict the course of any given game. Indeed, you cannot even reliably predict the next move. This is so because the “system” involves more than the rules of the game. It also includes the players and their unfolding, moment-by-moment decisions. It is an organized, purposeful activity, in which players respond to the moves made by their opponents in order to execute the plans that emerge as they review the board and attempt to discern the plans of their opponent. .

Likewise, a particular biography can unfold in unpredictable ways, even though each component event in the objective world is governed by simple deterministic rules. In an interesting parallel: the motivation of both the chess player and addicted person is to recognize and successfully cope with potentially game-ending traps.


* - Cialdini, R. B., (2nd. Ed.) (1988). Influence: Science and practice. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

** - Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W. and Pearl, D. K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness potential).  The  unconscious  initiation  of  a  freely  voluntary  act.  Brain,  102, 623-642

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