Don’t Blame Me. I Don’t Have Free Will

Try this argument on for size: I am a smart, clever guy with an advanced degree in neurology and tenure. The brain is a biological machine. But I don’t understand how free will works. Therefore, free will doesn’t exist. Quod erat demonstratum!

That bargain-basement syllogism is akin to saying this: I am smart, etc. My automobile is an electronic/mechanical machine. But I don’t understand how my newfangled automobile runs. Therefore, my automobile doesn’t move. It only apparently carries me from place to place, though I remain still.

As asinine as these arguments are, they are convincing to some. For example, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide and of the Wall Street Journal article, “Our Social Networks, Ourselves: Does free will even exist? Scientists are finding that we’re much more predictable than we think.”

Lehrer was able to write—but wait a minute; let’s be clear what is who and who is what. The label “Jonah Lehrer” sits above the article, but this label cannot be a person, a thinking entity with free will. It is instead a deterministic meat-machine that had no choice but to put together the string of words that found their way to print. Some of those words were these:

Although we can’t help but believe in our autonomy—free will is a fiction we need—this latest research suggests we’re not nearly as free as we typically assume.

The output “free will is a fiction we need” is evidently is a message to other meat-machines that if they thought they were thinking, they were mistaken. In fact, they cannot be “they”. If there is no free will, there is no “I”, no “we”, “you” is absent, and “they” is a misnomer. There are only objects.

Since this is so, those of us who claim to have free will can only wonder why the meat-machine Jonah Lehrer seeks to convince other meat-machines that their thoughts are not their own, but merely uncontrollable mental impulses. Has this Jonah Lehrer meat-machine somehow become a “he”, an entity with free will, a machine that was able to escape his biological limitations to become something other? A being that can look down on the rest of the machines and try to comfort them?

How did “he” manage this if he did not have free will? But perhaps it is merely a meat-machine after all, and those words have no meaning, they are just strings of letters and words, epistemologically blank. If there is no free will, it had no choice but to pen this string. Just as “I” have no choice to say these words.

But enough. The absurdity is evident. The only questions are why intellectuals like Lehrer come to believe they don’t exist (their meat exists, of course, but not their selves), and why they feel (for clearly there is a “they” to feel) they have to convince others that they don’t exist.

Lehrer cites “research” for why he says there is no free will. For example, work which shows, “Moods are also contagious. When a person is happy, nearby friends are 25% more likely to also be happy, according to research from Harvard Medical School. These viral emotions can even spread via online networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.” Harvard!

And how about this stunner: “According to the data, if a person becomes obese, the likelihood that one of his or her friends will become obese increases by 57%.”

In other words, if you tell a joke, your listener is “25% more likely” to be cheered, and if you hang around people who eat as you do, and those people are fat, you stand a good chance of packing on the pounds, too. Golly.

These and the other trivial facts Lehrer mentions as evidence that free will is a fiction were long known, of course, and known by every living soul. But they had never before been published in a medical journal by neurologists who were able to tie in Rudyard Kipling-like yarns about why what was obvious to all really meant we had no control over our own destinies.

Since your free will is absent, or severely stunted, you have no choice but to mimic the behavior of those nearest you. That is what those statistics purport to show. But left unanswered is the obvious question: who is making those close to you act as they do? Do they have free will? How do new behaviors begin?

Being able to guess your weight within 50 pounds by knowing only your zip code, or forecasting new movies you will like given recommendations by those with similar cinematic tastes are not monumental achievements in predictive science. And they are certainly not indicative that we don’t have free will.


  1. Tim

    The WSJ published this article. What more evidence do you need that free will doesn’t exist.

  2. Tom M

    I think most people on either side of the debate (with at least some intelligence, whether meaty-deterministic intelligence or personally attained intelligence through choice) can agree that the examples Lehrer gives truly are asinine. Proving we don’t have as much control as we like to think is a long way from proving we have no free will. “You’re-fat-because-your-friend-is-fat” is, at best, an interesting tidbit that isn’t terribly surprising, and at worst, bad pop science.

    But obviously, just because these arguments in favor of free will are ridiculously deficient, doesn’t mean free will exists. Assuming evolution is true, I find it harder to believe that free will either: a) existed in the first replicating material/organisms, or b) arose through evolutionary processes, over the possibility that determinism is real and free will is not. Also, it seems much easier for the illusion of free will to arise than free will itself.

    In general, I’d consider myself agnostic about it. Arguments from both sides can be convincing, and I don’t think we’re capable of answering the question now. Continuing on with life as if we had free will is a good policy.

  3. The thing that has always struck me is the observation that free will is only of usefulness if we live in a deterministic universe. That is, if the universe were completely random, then how are we supposed to actually exercise free will? There is no probability that what we may want to do will succeed.

    So since I believe I have free will, I find it very convenient that I live in a deterministic universe.

  4. Ray

    When my wife blames me something I try the no free will argument but it doesn’t work.

  5. I thought I decided not to comment here but it turned out Jonah Lehrer was correct. So does that mean that between the two of us he is batting .500?

  6. George Steiner

    Is it OK to ask what free will is?

  7. William Sears

    If you think that it is obvious that overeating causes obesity, I suggest that you check out the archives of created by Sandy Szwarc. This and many other opinions about obesity are analyzed in depth and shown to be without foundation.

  8. Luis Dias

    Why won’t you define “free will” in a logical, self-consistent and complete way before you go all shenaniganniwhining on us on how others are denying your own right to recognize said ghost in the shell.

    The examples you choose are just silliness rampant. But then again, 90% of everything is crap. If your best shot is nit picking the worst arguments from the other side, then you’re not exactly achieving anything worthy, now are you? You’re just descending yourself to this level of absurdity and becoming boring.

    And yeah, I know your silly come back too, “but I can’t help myself from being so, now can I?”

    But instead of answering to it, I refer to the first paragraph of mine. Answer that question before we enter this discussion again.

  9. Eric Anderson

    Ah yes, the ol’ deterministic philosophy of mind. Folks like Will Provine of Cornell used to spout this self-contradictory nonsense on a regular basis. Thankfully, even folks who pretend to believe there is no free will don’t actually follow this belief in practice in their own personal life, nor, when pressed, do they think it would be good for society as a whole to do so.


    Ray, LOL!


    William Sears, overeating (poorly defined) may only be one factor in weight gain, but it is very clear that consuming more calories than you expend will lead to weight gain. I don’t know if you are trying to focus on nuances of the term “obesity” and how it may be defined, but in terms of weight gain it is very straight forward (I’m not saying it is easy to control, having been through it myself, but it is straight forward) — it is just math. There are of course individual metabolisms to consider, diets galore, myriad exercise programs, etc., but the bottom line is primarily just a question of caloric intake and outflow. On the other hand, if we define overeating as consuming more calories than you use, then yes, by definition overeating will cause weight gain.

  10. Luis Dias, please forgive me as I don’t wish to be thought flip, but it seems to me if one must define free will before discussing it as a concept, then one doesn’t [yet] have “it”.

  11. William Sears

    To Eric Anderson,

    The calories-in versus calories-out argument is very tempting but you have to remember that you have a lot less control over this than you think. To control body weight by this mechanism would require knowledge of the calorie content of food to a greater accuracy than can be measured, let alone controlled. Therefore body metabolism is not under conscience control and there is a homeostasis mechanism to control body weight. You have a small amount of control about this point and therein lies the illusion of total control. Remember that your body does not want to starve and will fight to prevent it. A fat person on a diet is starving just as surely as a thin person. It is also just as difficult for a naturally thin person to gain weight as it is for a naturally fat person to loss weight. To say that it is “just math” is to attempt to reduce the exceedingly complex biochemistry of the human body to a few numbers. You can’t possibly mean this. After all if what you say is true why do all diets fail and fail spectacularly? There is a Nobel Prize waiting for you if you have the answer. However, there is no point arguing with me – read the articles on the website link that I have provided. You will discover that this topic has been extensively studied and analysed. All the technical details are there and the references are given.

  12. Smoking Frog

    If someone holds a gun to your head and demands all the money in your pockets, and you give it to him, you are acting less of your own free will than if there was no threat, and you decided to give him the money to help him. A determinist may argue that your behavior in the 2nd case is just as determined, but he’ll be talking about causes more remote from you than in the 1st case.

    The determinist may object to this by saying he’s talking about the motions of molecules in your brain and body, which are no more remote from you in the 2nd case than in the 1st, but that argument suffers from the fact that molecular motions are not intelligible as *causes* of your handing over your money. No one who was asked to state the causes of your act would say, “The motions of molecules in his brain and body.” He would talk about “macro” causes, i.e., more high-level causes.

    Now, the point is that, at least in some sense, you act more of your own free will as the causes of your act are more remote and diffuse. But remoteness and diffuseness make it more difficult to call them causes, and more sensible to say that *you* are the cause of your act. The same is true of anything, not only persons. For example, no one would say that the cause of yesterday’s rain in town X was the state of the world a year ago. The determinist says that our actions are caused, but his version of “cause” is a useless one; it cannot be informative.

  13. Mathematicians John Conway (inventor of the Game of Life) and Simon Kochen of Princeton University have written on The Strong Free Will Theorem.

    From the abstract:

    The two theories that revolutionized physics in the twentieth century, relativity and quantum mechanics, are full of predictions that defy common sense. Recently, we used three such paradoxical ideas to prove “The Free Will Theorem” (strengthened here), which is the culmination of a series of theorems about quantum mechanics that began in the 1960s. It asserts, roughly, that if indeed we humans have free will, then elementary particles already have their own small share of this valuable commodity. More precisely, if the experimenter can freely choose the directions in which to orient his apparatus in a certain measurement, then the particle’s response (to be pedantic—the universe’s response near the particle) is not determined by the entire previous history of the universe.

    So whatever definition you want to give for free will, it needs to be defined in such a way to be a property of the fundamental particles. Since I find fundamental particles too weird to understand, I don’t think my chances of understanding fee will are too great either.

  14. Noblesse Oblige

    Think this is bad? The WSJ recently had a piece bemoaning the fact that Americans buy too much stuff that they don’t really need. Who says so? The government, of course.

    Reading this curious piece, I wondered about the point. Alas, it became clear in the final paragraph: “… it could be read as a sign that U.S. economic growth relies too heavily on stimulating demand for stuff people don’t really need, to the detriment of public goods such as health and education. By that logic, a consumption tax – like the value-added taxes common throughout Europe—could go a long way toward restoring balance.”

    Yes. Another example of the media carrying the water for the gov. A small step toward the VAT that the gov salivates for every day.

    My posted comment was that this piece was “not really needed.” In fact the ‘journalist’ who concocted it is “not really needed” either.

  15. The question is, if Jonah Lehrer is not the master of his domain, then who (what) is?

    Who (what) pulls Jonah’s strings? Chance, the roll of the dice? The Domino Effect, a deterministic chain of inevitable events? God the Puppet Master? Space aliens?

    I vote for Door #4, the ET’s. If Jonah would simply wear a tinfoil hat all the time, like I do, then the space alien transmissions would not be so LOUD all the time for cripes sake just be quiet no I will not eat that donut no I won’t please help me argghhhhh!

  16. Eric Anderson

    William Sears, I have not suggested that metabolism is under conscious control or that other factors are not relevant, nor do mean to diminish the importance of other factors in controlling one’s weight (attitude being one of the primary factors). Nor am I discusing the exceedingly complex body chemistry.

    Let’s step back for a moment to the very basic point: the body (yes, through metabolism, complex chemical reactions, and so forth) works on the basis of the material it takes in, the energy content being measured in calories. Is it your view that if the body takes in more calories than it expends, that this will not contribute to weight gain? Where does the excess go, if the body doesn’t expend it? Byt he same token, if the body expends more calories than it takes in, is it your position that weight loss will not occur?

  17. Tom S

    Albert Einstein on free will

    “If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the Earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

    ~ Albert Einstein cited in John Horgan, New Year’s Resolution: I will believe in free will, Scientific American, Dec 27, 2010

  18. Tom S

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

  19. William Sears

    To Eric Anderson,

    To say that “taking in more calories than expended causes weight gain” is to assume that both input and output are under a person’s control. Neither is correct. As I have already stated it is impossible to control your weight by close attention to calories consumed and physical effort expended. It is impossible to actually know enough to do this. Of course in a banal sense calories-in balances calories-out or you will starve at one end of the equation or lose interest in eating at the other. The mistake is to assume that fat people are eating more than their bodies need. Calories-in balances calories-out for both the fat and the thin and the calories required depends on the lean body weight plus daily exertion. You seem to be trying to set up a straw man argument for me. We are all aware that it is possible to starve yourself to death. You may have noticed that starving, or dieting, people are very lethargic and can think of nothing but food, which means that the homeostasis system is attempting to balance the equation. A very similar response happens when you try to overeat. In this case the thought of eating is sickening. As we all know it is possible to go on crash diets and lose a large amount of weight, but the body will eventually rebound and put the weight back on, even when the reduced calorie intake remains the same. There is no missing energy as you can not completely control the output. Numerous studies have demonstrated this effect and once again I direct you to the junk-food-science website. Another interesting statistic is the near universal observation that after age 20 people gain about a pound a year until about age 50 when the weight levels off. This implies that the homeostasis set point is age dependent unless you want to insist that exercise falls off by just this amount or we eat just this amount of extra food. Let’s check the number of calories involved. One pound of flesh requires about 3500 calories which is about 9.6 calories a day or less than a half percent of minimal daily requirements. Does it still seem reasonable to you? This also shows why all weight loss diets are really starvation diets as this is the only way to (temporarily) overload the body’s control system.

    I ask W.M. Briggs for his indulgence for this side discussion.

  20. George Steiner

    That will learn me not to ask a question from my intellectual betters.

  21. Luis Dias

    Luis Dias, please forgive me as I don’t wish to be thought flip, but it seems to me if one must define free will before discussing it as a concept, then one doesn’t [yet] have “it”.

    Ahhh I see it’s one of those “gut feeling” things. So I’m right proclaiming it isn’t a scientific concept at all.

    So you feel you are “free” to do what you “want”, and feel superior to those people who are skeptical of these unfounded vague shouting claims “I have FREE WILL!!”, and that’s enough for you.

    Well, I won’t dissuade you from your religious beliefs.

    My gist was against Briggs’ insistent jolts against skepticism towards this rather senseless slogan “Free Will!!”, without ever stating clearly what this thing really is.

    My point is, mr. Briggs himself hasn’t a clue of what *is* free will. He just “knows” that he has it, and so has any other “free man”. Because he is a very free american man, you see? He has a nice hat with a nice suit, a beautiful wife and that is clearly not arbitrary, it was the result of his free choices. I don’t blame him. It’s like hearing anyone with a deep ingrained religious belief that X is so and so, and if said person has erected a whole life philosophy based on it, he won’t even consider the questioning of this “obviosity”. He will take it as granted and scuff at anyone else who dares to question these things as “fools”, etc.

    But here’s the difference. Mr Briggs is a so-called “academic” who is, also, very skeptical at many proclamations, from medical to climatological, etc. He is even very skeptical at atheism, etc. And so to square this whole skepticism with a magical religious unquestioned belief in this supernatural thing called “free will”, without any honest ponderation of what it really “means”, I just have to say how inconsistent mr Briggs is.

    Which is also fine, he is, after all, a human being. And I take note that he wasn’t able to answer my question. That is, in a nutshell, consenting my point.

  22. Unqualified to enter the philosophical debate I content myself, in a spirit of good order, with a minor correction:

    quod erat demonstrandum (Gerund)

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