Paradox of Free Will

To be, or not to be, is that even a question? The concept of free will has puzzled humans over millenniums, are we able to do what we want or is free will just an illusion of the mind? Observing free will from a binary perspective there are two possible options, either everything is predetermined or all actions are random, in both cases there is no space for free will. What are the main viewpoints on free will? How can there be free will in the Universe where all particles of matter are confined to obey laws of physics? What are the things you can really choose, if any, which dictate the way you will behave and make decisions? These and other questions related to the topic have been in the center of my mental wrestling arena in the past weeks. Now let´s jump in to the ring and see if we find any answers.

“Free will is an illusion. People always choose the perceived path of greatest pleasure.”  Said Scott Adams an American cartoonist and writer. What are the main factors that influence the way your personality, consciousness and “I” evolve? These are of course genes, environment and upbringing. You have no control over these elements and when you are old enough to change the things that affect your life, it is already too late. Your body and mind have developed to a point where it is quite hard to change the fundamental characters of your personality, needs, wants and habitus. But what about free will? One definition of free will is “the power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by an agency such as fate or divine will”. How free will is defined naturally affects the outcome of its plausible existence. Are we just puppets of the laws of nature or some omnipotent will, are our fates and everything else fixed without any hope of changing things to come?

“God does not play dice.” Stated Einstein, he was a determinist and opposed the ideas of quantum mechanics which suggested that the Universe is world of probabilities. Determinism basically claims that everything, all events even human choices, occur causally due to previous states of the Universe or multiverse. This is however different from fatalism where all things are predetermined, but more about that later. There are two takes of free will regarding determinism, compatibilist believes that free will and determinism can coexists without logical inconsistencies and incompatibilist thinks that if determinism is true than free will cannot exist and vice versa. Hard determinist argues that the Universe is a complex machine inevitably crunching through its existence without any chance of change thus free will does not exist. Metaphysical liberalist view goes under incompatibilism and he/she says that determinism does not exist because it is logically discordant with free will and agents have free will, thus determinism is not possible in this Universe. Pessimistic incompatibilist or hard indeterminist sees only the nature of Universe and nothing else, for this fellow free will or determinism does not compute.

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” Said Arthur Schopenhauer who was a famous German philosopher. This topic is closely linked to the one I wrote about consciousness, being conscious of something is nevertheless a different matter than possessing free will to choose the things one is conscious about. Classical physics deal with the motion of macroscopic objects and their movements, which can be predicted long into the future, this scientific approach partially influenced the deterministic view. Quantum mechanics deals with microscopic, subatomic particles, at this scale energy and matter can be particles and waves at the same time. Location of quantum particles can only be predicted to a certain percent. Is free will just an emergent illusion created by the mind in a deterministic world or does random quantum changes enable the existence of free will? It seems that deeper one looks into structure of nature more complex question arises together with uncertainty. We are constructed from these particles that behave predictably and unpredictably on different levels but in the end we are energy that has frozen momentarily into matter, still I think there is more that affect the plausible existence of free will in this sentient animal called human.

 “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. This was quote from Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. When one contemplates that free will exists then there are countless factors which influence the limitations of one´s free will. First of all at what time in history, where and to what kind of family one is born, are primary shapers of free will. Whether it is now, in the future or 500 years ago, a small village in a jungle or a huge city, poor or rich family, these factors logically limits or supports certain possibilities in one´s life.  This is not all, starting from the society as a whole social conditioning defines the way an individual should behave properly in various situations which are approved by the society in general and peer groups within the society. Some examples of social conditioning are education level, employment opportunities, forms of entertainment, popular culture and religion or lack of it in one country or area. Values of a particular country or area condition you to think what is good and what is bad, thus these ideas govern your behavior if you do not question them. Being a citizen of a country is also something one cannot control, I for one, would like be a citizen of the Earth instead of one country. Going down from there it is the community and family level which also condition the mind and free will of an individual living under the influence of those groups. Living in fundamental religious community and family seriously conditions people to think in a limited way and it can be hard to overcome those thought barriers. What about internal needs and wants, how much those affect the will of an individual?

“This free will business is a bit terrifying anyway. It’s almost pleasanter to obey, and make the most of it.” Said Ugo Betti who was an Italian playwright and poet.Surely social structures influence the perception of an individual, nevertheless, emotions, thoughts and image of self derive from within one´s mind. One cannot control certain bodily functions such as digestion or other automated responses to stimuli (e.g. pain) but when it comes to feelings what is the role of free will. Think about your own preferences, what do you like? Do you like coca-cola, your mate or specific song because you choose to like them or due to your environment and personal experiences? We can be conscious of limited amount of things at one time, this is where the unconscious mind comes in and helps you to process information without being aware of it. Edward Bernays was nephew of Sigmund Freud and he used his uncle´s theories in creation of a new field called public relations. He was a master of mind control and propaganda, by tapping into needs of the unconscious mind he was able to manipulate the masses. He thought this was necessary part of democracy since the masses possess irrational and dangerous needs which need to be controlled by small, intellectual elite. In the 1920´s women were not permitted to smoke in public, this was a huge problem for the tobacco industry so they hired Bernays to change attitudes of the masses. He created a PR stunt at a parade in New York where Bernays had paid models to smoke cigarettes or Torches of Freedom which were associated to emancipation and equality with men. Bernays managed to make this event look like news, which is of course wasn´t, so the ignorant public would better believe it, thus the taboo was broken. This is a reason for my opinion that people who do not question their thoughts are doomed and deserve to be controlled by others.

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I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is “good” about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think.” Said Freud in a letter he sent to his friend Oskar Pfister in 1918, unfortunately more I study history and observe the world today more I am in agreement with Sigmund. One might have unconscious (or even conscious) needs, wants, thoughts and emotions one would prefer not to have, nonetheless, avoiding them will only create confusion. Nowadays people complain that they don´t have time to do the things they want, this is simply bullshit and self-deception, we are living in a time when there should be more free time than ever. It is only a matter of contemplation, if you stop and think about what you really want and correct behavior accordingly there will be time to fulfill your desires. (But can one really possess time, is topic for another time.) We might not be able to fully control our thoughts and feelings but only by questioning them and your self-image there is a chance to come in terms with your inner “daemons” thus enabling a better control of your actions.

“Man was predestined to have free will.”-Hal Lee Luyah- Do you have a destiny, certain fate that is irreversible no matter what you do? Does everything happen for a reason? Fate or destiny is a predetermined course of events considering an individual or general direction of the world. This is a believe that there is fixed natural order in the Universe. Destiny and fate might sound the same but the meanings are slightly different, fate is a course of events predetermined by an agency or power and these paths are inescapable, destiny implies to plausible future after things have run their course and in this an individual can participate in working towards this goal. Fatalism is philosophical policy which dwells around the thought that all actions and events are subjugated by fate. This can mean that we are incapable to do anything other than we actually do and there is no chance to influence the future, actions are free but the end result will always be the same, resistance is futile and it is better to accept the fate which has been laid before us. Fatalism is close to defeatism which is the acceptance of defeat without struggle. Another –ism close to fatalism is predeterminism which states that every single action is due to continuous chain of events that goes back to beginning of the Universe, both of these –isms strongly imply that there is some omniscient conscious being determining these events. These are different from determinism where the presence of this omnipotent being is not needed and events occur due to laws of nature. Most of us are familiar with the monotheistic view where a macho, misogynist, sadistic and schizophrenic character is defining things according to his whim but what did our ancestors believe?

“If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.” -Chinese Proverb. In European mythology which predates Christianity there were three goddesses which decided the fates of men through the mystical spinning of threads. They were called the Moirai (apportioners) in Greek mythology, names of the goddesses were Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable). Clotho is the youngest one, responsible for spinning of the metaphorical thread of life and making key decisions such as when a person was born. Lachesis was the middle one of the goddesses of fate, she was the measurer of the thread spun by Clotho and appointed destinies for all people for example how long time one should have time on earth. Atropos is the oldest of Moirai, it was her duty to choose the fashion how one would die and ended a life by cutting the thread of life with her abhorred shears. Gods and men had to submit to the wills of Moirai but Zeus was portrayed in two ways, either as the only one who could command Moirai or as one who also has to submit to the will of The Fates. The Romans had their equivalents from these goddesses called the Parcae, roles were similar but the names had changed to Nona, Decima and Morta. In the Norse mythology the same spinners of fate were called the Norns, names of the goddesses were Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld. How is one responsible for one´s actions if his life is predetermined?


“Imagination is cheap as long as you don’t have to worry about the details.” Was well said by an American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Moral codes are bunch of social rules agreed by a group of people and in the end they are based on the acknowledgement that free will exists. What if you are an incompatibilist who believes we are living in a deterministic Universe where one does not have any choice in what one does? Is this person then guilty if he murders someone? This person could of course plea for insanity and be placed in a mental asylum. However if this person would be a highly philosophical child or person suffering from a huge brain tumor the court might find him non compos mentis (not having command over his/her mind) thus releasing or reducing the person´s sentence. We all know that children´s brains are not yet developed to understand abstract concepts and brain malfunction caused by a tumor or mental illness can distort the understanding of reality but what about the effect of genes, environment and social conditioning. Psychopaths, pedophiles, emetophiles or other social misfits are the result of these factors, one could have the genes that would predispose one to be a psychopath but with the help of good upbringing the genes might not manifest themselves, nonetheless, there is no conscious choice made by free will that could effect if one becomes a psychopathic killer or not. All of us are not even conscious of a choice before it is already done, where in this arena would free will shout command from a throne?

‘I would have done it again’: Anders Breivik claims his massacre was motivated by ‘goodness not evil’

“The question of free will is insoluble on strictly psychological grounds” Quote from William James, American Philosopher and Psychologist, leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism. Maybe neuroscience has an answer to the question does free will exists? Benjamin Libet did pioneering experiments in this field during 1980´s, in his famous test subjects were asked to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he measured the associated activity in their brain. It was known that there is readiness potential in the brain which precedes the action but Libet asked how this potential corresponded to the felt intention to move. He found out that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision started approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that she had decided to move. This would imply that free will is just a retrospective illusion created by the consciousness. John-Dylan Haynes and his team extended Libet´s experiments and used fMRI research to find patterns of neural activity in people’s brains that correlated with their decision to press either a right or left button up to six seconds before they were aware of deciding which button to press. There was also criticism in this article that these are only the neural sings of how the brain builds up to state of conscious decision. In the other article Prof Haggard´s body is controlled from an outside source by transcranial magnetic stimulation, it is possible to cause simple actions such as movement of hand and fingers with that method. When you think about it is fascinating that it is possible to control the body by stimulating the brain without a conscious thought. Are we just complex biological machines receiving and transmitting various input and output signals?

“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” -Stephen Hawking- I hope that those who read this far spend some time to ponder this paradox of free will, I have spent countless hours in these past weeks gathering information, thinking and processing it, almost to the edge of sanity. You don´t need to go that far but my wish is that one would understand the gravity of this question. Now we can move on the conclusion I found while I wrestled with this paradox. When I wrote about consciousness I created The Flashlight Theory and here is a quote from that post: “…consciousness is flashlight in a dark room, though this room is not empty, it´s your reflection of the Universe and reflection of the Universe in you. This flashlight is in constant movement, momentarily shining light on certain things, issues, ideas and by concentrating you can stop this movement and illuminate whatever is in the focus of the beam.” I think that free will and consciousness are both emergent phenomena of the brain and therefore illusions. However, if by concentrating one can momentarily stop the movement of this flashlight then free will could be described as the luminosity of this beam. When something is the focus of this beam, how one perceives it defines the way it is affects to your mind and body. Good example of this is the placebo effect and how by thinking positively, one can heal diseases just with the power of thought. Some of the things which alter the luminosity of that beam are genes, social conditioning, outside control of conscious and unconscious minds of individuals and masses. Does one has the ability to change the luminosity is up to metaphorical cast of dices which are the sum of all the conditions that one has been subjugated to during one´s life. Whether we live in a deterministic Universe where everything happens according to specific laws of nature or in randomly changing quantum world, there is no area where free will could reside. I think the only way one could somehow change the choices one makes (if one has the ability) is by moving to another environment or modifying one´s current environment. This would not change the upbringing or other history one has but this adjustment would directly alter the other parameters which affect to the illusion of free will. Interpersonal changes such as increasing the level of information, awareness, understanding, skeptical analysis of everything and changing the external inputs by travelling to other countries and encountering new cultures will enable you to change your current behavioral patterns. Free will is an illusion but by understanding this, one can at least slightly modify the conditions which determine the choices “you make”.

For more information I recommend these documentaries:




2 thoughts on “Paradox of Free Will

  1. Hello Alternus. This was a remarkable contribution to the debate over free will vs. determinism. The topic is so difficult so that I need more time to give a full answer, where I stand in this problem. But let say this:

    “I think that free will and consciousness are both emergent phenomena of the brain and therefore illusions.”

    If the consciousness and free will are both the results of the electrochemical reactions in the brain and therefore illusions, then there is no reason to assume that the human brain would be a real physical object either. Or do you think that human’s empirical experiences are real but the consciousness and free will are illusions? I don’t find there any logic. But one thing is absolutely certain, the fact that consciousness and free will are in the merciless bondage of the physical body in this physical reality. If your leg is broken you can’t run. In my opinion it is also irrational opinion that the consciousness and physical body would be somehow totally separate entities from each other so that the soul would descent from the heaven to the bodies of the new born babies and after the death it would come back to the mystical place where it belongs.Why would it descent to the human body at first place if the physical reality is totally different form of reality than the environment of the human soul?

    On the other hand it doesn’t make any sense to think that the physical reality is real but the consciousness, I, would be an illusion. Is there any rational reasons to assume that the experiences of the physical reality by the illusory entities would be real?

    In my opinion there can’t be any kind of separation between the consciousness and the brain in the fundamental level of nature. They are the same thing. If you start to think that consciousness is illusion, you can easily come to the conclusion that the brain is also an illusion. If the brain and consciousness are both illusions then the whole universe would be an illusion and that is not possible because something must exist – cogito ergo sum 🙂

    Maybe it goes this way: the separation of the consciousness and physical matter is an illusion. Something exist but we don’t know yet exactly what that something is. Some people like to talk about God, Heaven, Nirvana, Nothingness or some thing else when it comes to the afterlife. Nothingness is also something because it is the abstract concept created by the human brain 🙂

    I’m sorry, but i just can’t give now my answer about the free will because i don’t now what i should answer. I really like to think that i have a free will but the problem in that opinion is the irrationality of the human life. If there is a free will why would human take such a stupid actions like she does all the time all around the world?

    • Thank you Alejandro Magno. I spent a long time thinking about these subjects and I recommend the same for you, this way you will appreciate the question more and have fun while pondering this existential paradox. You can question your own thought process and the way choices are made.

      I think you misunderstood the message, I think all of our experiences, consciousness and free will are in a way illusions. They are mechanisms which help us to decode the reality, survive and preroduce. I think evolution is the universal law of nature in this Universe and it can produce a multitude of creatures which interpret the physical world in different ways. It would be facinating to meet another sentient being and discuss about this topic with it. Would that creature think it has free will? The human brain is a real physical object responsible for our mechanisms of decoding and those produce the illusions of free will and consciousness. This whole idea of metaphysical soul influencing the physical worl (how?) is quite ridiculous, there no supernatural in this Universe only natural things and those which we do not yet (or never will with this brain) understand.

      I think we can say that consciousness is real to the person thinking about it and beyond that it is quite hard to say what is real and what is not. It could be as you say that everything is part of the same consciousness and seperations, dualities, are created in the mind. Physics, quantum and regular, point to the direction which suggests that in this Universe all things are connected. All life is related, just on this planet, to the same source and when a fetus is developing in the womb, it goes through these evolutionary phases. All is one. One is all. However consciousness and free will are just crude illusionary mechanisms in understanding of this truth.

      Watch the videos I linked to this post and check out the link for more information. This way you can gain a deeper understanding of this topic. “I’m sorry, but i just can’t give now my answer about the free will because i don’t now what i should answer.” This answer would suggest that you are thinking in a deterministic view? 🙂

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