Free Will: Can We Want What We Want?

Francesca Puletti (from the 2020 archive)

“Albert Einstein consoled himself through the thought that a more intelligent being than us would smile at the idea that we act on the basis of “free will”. People feel the need to shape their lives, make choices and make decisions, even if their lives take place in the same way that the moon goes around the earth.” – Maureen Sie

We are always convinced that our choices are free from any kind of constraint and that we have the possibility to choose one option instead of another. Are we sure that this is true? Do human beings have “contra-causal” free will? Do we consciously choose to carry out certain actions and, under the exact same conditions, could we chose to do otherwise?

The notion of free will is hard to define but is crucial both to individual and social life. Reflections on free will have been confined to philosophy until half a century ago, when the topic was also addressed by neuroscience, in attempt to highlight the interconnections between free will and human brain.

The concept of “free will”, according to a current definition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, implies that in an identical situation, a different choice could have been made. There are therefore factors, not wholly impeding, but certainly influencing free will, such as emotions, social pressure, conventions, moral norms, beliefs, prejudices, superstitions, etc. Moreover, free will can be attributed to other bio-psycho-social factors such as genetic predisposition, expectation of reward, and avoidance of risk.

…this story is set up only after the decision has been made, giving us the illusion of taking our decisions and making our choices consciously

No doubt we have the feeling of free will, of establishing our behavior in a thoughtful way. The feeling of possessing free will is nothing but a pleasant illusion. This emotion arises because of the fact that our left hemisphere creates a logical narrative in retrospect to explain why we made a certain decision. However, this story is set up only after the decision has been made, giving us the illusion of taking our decisions and making our choices consciously, which also makes it very difficult to accept the fact that neuroscience has proven just the opposite.

The first relevant study on the brain and free will was the one pioneered by Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department of the University of California, San Francisco. In 1980, Libet performed an experiment in which some subjects were connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG), to record electrical activity in the brain, and to an electromyogram (EMG), to record muscular electrical activity. These individuals were requested to perform a movement. From the recordings, Libet found that the participants became aware of deciding the execution of the movement after the EEG had already recorded the brain activity for that movement, with an advance of 500 milliseconds.

In 2007 John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist from Berlin, replicated Libet’s experiment, using the more complex functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, able to detect the brain activity for a movement. The request addressed to the subjects was to press a button, with the right or left index finger, while seeing a succession of letters on a screen. They then had to report which letter was on the screen when they decided to press the button, revealing that this conscious choice occurred about a second before the movement happened. More interestingly Haynes recorded a pattern of brain activity nearly seven seconds earlier.

The researcher showed that the brain started a voluntary movement before the subject was aware of having decided to move. This means that before the subjects were aware of the choice to move, their brain had already decided. The researcher found out that awareness of the decision by the individual had in fact no influence on the decision itself; free will was thus a mere illusion.

Free will & responsibility

“We are free to do what we want […] but never to want what we want.” – Thomas Hobbes

Total freedom, however, is not given to us because of external and internal limits, which appear to be heavily intertwined. The rules, through which societies function, appear to be external, but are instead based on internal moral principles whose foundations are rooted in our genetical information.

Furthermore, there are internal limits that are determined by the way the cerebral structures and circuits have developed, and which determine our features, such as character, sexuality, faculties, and intellectual limitations.

Some faculties of our brain contrast with the idea of free will. As one of the most fervent early materialists, Thomas Henry Huxley, stated in 1874, “Volitions do not enter into the chain of causation…The feeling that we call volition is not the cause of a voluntary act, but the symbol of that state of the brain which is the immediate cause.”

Some faculties of our brain contrast with the idea of free will.

As explained before, we take our decisions unknowingly. Even the sequence of the brain’s development calls into question the existence of free will. Both the genetic endowment and the structural changes that occur during brain development determine a large part of our behavior. This applies also to moral rules, whose foundations are genetically established.

Let’s take, as an example, depression: patients suffering of acute depression may die by suicide. They “consciously” decide to kill themselves due to a brain pathology. This shows how the existence of free will is questioned by brain developments. This “voluntary choice” of killing oneself comes from a mental illness which does not allow them to actually “choose”.

Unconscious Decisions

“Men believe they are free only because they are aware of their actions, and unaware of the causes from which they are determined.” – Spinoza

Roger Wolcott Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga have shown that information in the brain is processed by a huge amount of specialised and distributed brain systems, after which a decision is made locally at an unconscious level. In itself it is not a bad mechanism.

As today’s airplanes can fly and land with an autopilot, so the brain too can operate, to a large extent, quickly and automatically, unconsciously. In many respects, the brain can be compared to a gigantic computer that can largely run on autopilot mode.

We are constantly being bombarded by a huge amount of information and we unknowingly use selective attention to extract only what is important to us. We take decisions in fractions of a second, instinctively, on the basis of intuition, without consciously reflecting on it.

Before the founder of the psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, in 1879, the sociologist Francis Galton, one of the first to combine statistical methods and psychological theories, reported in the journal “Brain” the many processes that take place, all or in part, unconsciously in the brain. The decisions are not taken by a leader, a little man inside our mind, the famous homunculus, but by the formed network of our brain.

Naturally we must first provide the unconscious brain with the right background information through experience. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that different neuronal circuits are used when consciously thinking and making intuitive decisions. Decisions taken through conscious reasoning take time and are not at all better than unconscious ones. In fact, conscious reasoning can even hinder a good choice.

However, in an unusual or unfamiliar environment, for example when trying to learn something new, such as driving a car, you have to resort to a slower conscious mechanism, until, after a lot of exercise, you will be able to do this relatively automatically.

The possibilities of free choice disappear progressively during brain development

“Science has made it increasingly clear that free will is an illusion. But this, even more than God, is a glorious and absolutely necessary illusion.” – John Horgan

Since conception, each stage of brain development leads to a limitation of our choices. Thanks to a combination of genetic dating, its self-organizing capacity and the programming it undergoes during the initial stages of development, our brain becomes unique, even if the genetic endowment is the same, as in identical twins, and the character elements, the talents, and limits are already partly fixed.

Neuro-scientific research has shown that irreversible cerebral and structural differences with respect to gender identity and sexual orientation are formed before birth. Neuroanatomy is destiny, to paraphrase Freud’s saying “anatomy is destiny”. This applies not only to gender identity, sexual orientation, the degree to which you are aggressive, antisocial, psychotic and the extent to which you show an unconventional behavior, but it also applies to the chances of contracting a mental illness as schizophrenia, autism, depression and addiction to various substances.

Step by step, the possibilities of choice are further reduced, even after birth. After birth in the brain the mother tongue is programmed, which affects the structure and functioning of many brain areas. This process is influenced entirely by the linguistic environment.

We are all also born with a certain degree of spirituality and the differences between one individual and another are largely determined by small variations in genes, important for the chemical transmission of development in the brain. The environment determines the way in which spirituality is expressed in religion or in other conceptions, perhaps even in science. Once adults, there are big limits to the possibility of modifying the brain and we are therefore not free to decide to change our gender identity, sexual orientation, level of aggression, character, religion or mother tongue.

The possibilities of free choice are also limited by the moral rules necessary for the functioning of society. From the experimental work of scholars like Frans de Waal on the society of the apes, it turns out that the foundations of our rules and our moral behavior are already present among the great apes. This applies, for example, to altruism, empathy, incest taboo, shame when rules are violated and fear of punishment. This means that these behaviors and moral rules have an evolutionary genetic basis that already existed millions of years ago, even before the Bible and the churches.


“Poets sometimes say that science diminishes the beauty of stars by reducing them to nothing but atoms in the form of gas. I can see and hear the stars, but I see more or less?” Richard Feynman

Determinism is accepting the fact that free will is a myth, an illusion. This type of illusion that creates our brain has been called “post-negative illusion”. Perhaps in the moments in which we experience a choice, our mind is rewriting history while it deceives us making us think that our choice (which was considered after its consequences were unconsciously perceived) arbitrariness.

The feeling of having free will therefore motivates individuals to react less selfishly and aggressively. For this reason believing in free will is not only a pleasant illusion for ourselves, but also for others.

The brain makes decisions unconsciously, that are later transferred into consciousness. This leaves no room for the existence of free referees, apart from the fact that we do not want to accept the automatic decisions that take our brain. We would no longer be able to do anything other than to get ready to regulate bodily functions.

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