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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Unraveling the Conundrum of Free Will: Navigating Between Determinism and Agency

While there's a history of debate about free will, we need to believe in it.



  • The idea whether we truly have free will has been debated by philosophers, theologians, and scientists for centuries.

  • An extreme view of free will, that we either have it completely or not at all, is problematic.

  • While there is debate about the extent of our free will, there is greater consensus that believing that we have free will is beneficial.

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help us perceive the world, others, and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

There's an old psychologist joke that I love for reasons relevant to the topic of free will. Apologies if this joke is familiar to you already: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One...but it has to want to change.

I'm biased, but I happen to think it's a great joke because it reveals a deep, fundamental truth in a playful way. As a psychologist who works with people who are seeking change, I must believe in some form of free will. That is, through conscious, deliberate efforts, we can change our lives as we desire. This is in line with the Oxford Dictionary's definition of free will as the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion.

That said, any discussion of free will can quickly become quite complicated. After all, there is a reason that philosophers, theologians, and scientists have argued for centuries about whether we have free will or our lives are determined in some way (i.e., free will vs. determinism). I don't have the audacity to believe that I can answer this question but, as we shall see, how we think about free will is critically important to our use of it.

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill. I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose freewill. –From the song, "Freewill" by Rush

What Do We Mean by "Free Will"?

When we are seeking an answer to difficult questions in life, it's critical that we first define our terms. For example, if we were to discuss whether animals have emotions, we would have to agree with the definition of "emotion" on the front end. We open a can of worms when we try to define "free will" since it is a hypothetical construct whose meaning is inherently nuanced and debatable.

Thus, we might disagree with others about whether we truly have free will merely because we are defining it differently. Even if we agree upon the Oxford Dictionary definition, there is still much room for interpretation. While most of us probably agree that we have some form of free will, it would be difficult to defend a view that free will means "We are absolutely free to choose how we think, feel, and act at any moment in time no matter what."

Consider the following factors that would greatly affect how we could exercise our free will to choose our thoughts, feelings, and actions:

·  We don't choose our genes, and those play a substantial role in our physical and psychological characteristics (e.g., intelligence has a large genetic component).

·  We don't get to choose who our parents or family members are, whether we were born into wealth or poverty or with a genetic condition, etc.

·  We don't get to choose when and where we are born (e.g., our lives would be vastly different if we were born as peasants in Medieval Europe during the Black Death).

·  Disabilities, conditions, diseases, and characteristics can hinder or prevent someone from pursuing or succeeding in certain careers and endeavors (e.g., As per Federal Aviation Regulations, one cannot become a commercial airline pilot if legally blind).

·  We are not free to be unaffected by traumatic events or tragedies (e.g., war veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, we experience the death of a loved one).

·  Our thoughts, feelings, and behavior are altered when we are ill, drunk, tired, thirsty, hungry, etc.

·  We cannot totally suppress reflexive responses (e.g., one cannot suppress a startle reflex to an unexpected jump-scare).

·  We engage in many habits, healthy and unhealthy, with little to no conscious deliberation.

·  If I tell you not to think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, you will think of him whether you want to or not...and you just did.

While some may argue or debate many of the examples listed above, most people are likely to agree that there are some limitations and constraints to how we are able to exercise our free will.

The Problem With Extreme Views of Having, or Not Having, Free Will

A belief in an extreme or absolute version of free will can be problematic in that it can lead one to disproportionately blame (or credit) others for one’s life circumstances and outcomes: "He chose not to get an education or work hard, and that's why he's living in poverty. It's his own fault." This can lead to victim-shaming as well as a lack of empathy, compassion, and support for people who are struggling. Conversely, those who become "successful" might misattribute the bulk of their success to their own efforts rather than acknowledging the many factors (e.g., intact family, genetics, supportive and involved family, highly educated parents, financial resources, good school/teachers/mentors, living in a democracy, luck) that contributed to their success story.

While an absolutist view of free will might be untenable and problematic, a deterministic view, that we lack free will, might create even greater problems. Those who don't believe that they can exercise free will to make meaningful changes in their lives might internalize a "victim" or helpless mentality. They might point to their race, genderethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, appearance, upbringing, circumstances, bad luck, and so on and say things like, "I can't be successful because of _____. Other people get the lucky breaks, and I just have to accept my lot in life." In effect, they have given away their power to make changes because they believe change and growth are inherently outside of their control.

It's Good for Us to Believe That We Have Free Will

How much free will we have is open to debate, but there seems to be a greater consensus that believing that we have some form of free will is beneficial. According to self-determination theory, we have intrinsic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness that motivate our behavior. Having a sense of agency, that we can exercise our free will to produce desired outcomes, is deeply important to us. Indeed, researchers have found that believing we have free will is associated with a host of positive outcomes (e.g., greater life satisfaction, a sense of meaning in life, lower stress, more satisfying relationships, better academic performance, better job performance). Conversely, feeling like we are helpless, that we don't have power to make changes, contributes to depression (e.g., learned helplessness).

The Takeaway?

What we mean by having "free will" and how much we have of it is still open to debate. While free will is not an absolute, we can make remarkable changes and improvements when we exercise our free will toward desired goals. Moreover, a belief that we have free will increases the likelihood that we exercise it in the pursuit of change, growth, and happiness. Since there is no consensus on what the "right" answer is regarding free will, and we know that it is beneficial for us to believe that we have it, how about we use our free will to choose that belief, as advocated in the Rush song? There are more ways to use the idea of free will to our advantage, and I hope you will join me for my next post in which I cover this.


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