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Do you have free will?

free will blog animated cartoon brain with robot inside
Written by Dr. Ralph Lewis

Do you think of yourself as the author of your own actions? A free agent? Completely and all the time?

Or, have you had moments thinking, “I don’t know why I just said that”, or, “I don’t know what came over me when I did that!”

My patients with psychiatric disorders more readily admit that there are times when they definitely do not feel in control of their thoughts, emotions, speech and actions. It’s frightening and dismaying for them.

Most mental disorders can be understood as ends of a continuum of normal human traits[i], as shown in this graphic.

Parents regularly bring their misbehaving, moody or unmotivated teenager for assessment “to figure out” if the teen “has a mental disorder or just a behaviour and attitude problem.” They ask me if the problem is that they “can’t—or just won’t” behave better, stay calmer or work harder.

It’s a practical distinction, but a false dichotomy. There is no sharp dividing line between voluntary and involuntary behaviours.

Free will and the brain

If there were such a thing as pure free will—then ‘mind stuff’ and the rest of the physical stuff in the universe would have to be categorically separate. Of course, we know, it’s not that simple.

The brain is entirely the product of genes and environment interacting over the history of the life of the animal[ii]. The brain is shaped by a person’s experience. That is how learning occurs.

Every brain is primed or biased by its unique genetic predisposition to respond slightly differently to the environment, and to learn differently. That’s what temperament is. For example, people differ in their capacity for self-control. Upbringing also influences self-control, as do practice and a person’s habits. Too much self-control can be as impairing (and involuntary) as too little of it.

So now think about it: since we are entirely the product of our genes and our environment, where does free will enter the picture? Believing in true free will would entail taking the position that within each of our brains there exists some sort of independent entity unaffected by those factors, like a little executive captain piloting the brain, able to freely ‘decide’ when and how to act.

However, the brain consists of interdependent regions in a reverberating circuit[iii]. There is no absolute, separate executive. The sense of executive self is an elaborate illusion.

Complex systems like the human brain behave in complex and unpredictable ways. For this reason, trying to predict how a person will respond to a situation is difficult or even impossible—even if we had an unimaginably powerful computer that could compute all the variables.

In that sense—the uniqueness and unpredictability of each decision and action—a brain does possess something resembling free will. But, this is not true free will in pure principle.

Brains that are affected by mental illness, damage or developmental delay lose much of their flexible complexity. Thought pattern and behaviour becomes more rigid, distorted and reactive. Responses are less cognitively controlled and instead more determined by emotion, habit, or impulse.

But remember, what constitutes a mental disorder is often a matter of degree—being further along the continuum of a normal human trait. So those questions we were considering about “mental disorder or attitude” and “can’t or won’t” might need to be answered in shades of grey rather than black or white. I try to keep this in mind with those difficult teens or anyone else with mental health concerns… and in fact when evaluating all human behaviour.

So, free will is a matter of degrees of relative freedom – degrees of flexibility. But the brain’s decision-making ability is never completely untethered from its recent or distant determining factors.

Some people find this realization depressing—that our will is never truly free. But I find it awe-inspiring and humbling. It’s also empathy-inducing, especially when considering those who face mental illness.

[i]  Even clearly abnormal conditions that are not just accentuations of normal human traits such as head injuries, developmental delay, dementia, or schizophrenia have a range of severity, with the mildest versions being practically indistinguishable from normality.

[ii]  And the genes an animal inherits at conception are the product of evolution – itself shaped by gene-environment interaction over eons of time.

[iii]  Or cybernetic loop.

About the author

Dr. Ralph Lewis

Dr. Lewis is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. His clinical work focuses particularly on two areas: youth psychiatry and psycho-oncology.

» Read his blog series, Finding Purpose

Dr. Lewis is the author of Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn't.