Free Will: Just How Free to Make Choices Are We?

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Quite apart from the question of whether human beings in a deterministic world can be said to be free — and what that means for moral responsibility — the idea remains that we all have it within us to be more than just a slave to our fears and desires.

Almost everyone has heard the term “free will” at one time or another. But exactly what this purported human attribute is and whether or not it even truly exists has been a matter of considerable philosophical debate for centuries. Because the notion of free will is so inextricably tied to most of our beliefs about moral responsibility, it’s worth the effort to get a better understanding of the concept.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines free will as a term used to denote a particular dimension of “the capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” However, just what the particular aspect of our capacity to reason is that might enable us to make choices that are truly “free” has been part of an ongoing debate among philosophers as well as social observers and scientists. Some are of the belief that the very idea of a truly “free” will is an illusion. For those holding this perspective, most of our so-called “choices” are in fact actions that are “determined” not only by certain decision rules deeply embedded into our brains by our biological programming but also by the nature of our life experiences and the beliefs and attitudes we develop as a result of these experiences. (Actually, the whole notion of “determinism” and its compatibility or incompatibiliy with free will is much more complicated than the simple explanation I’ve offered here for the sake of discussion.) Others argue that there is hardly anything one can think of that is a more uniquely human trait than one’s freedom of will. Of all the creatures with some capacity to think or reason, they argue, humans are uniquely endowed with the freedom to choose.

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In recent years, empirical research in the fields of neurobiology and cognitive science have stumbled upon some findings that raise interesting questions about the concept of human free will. Some studies provide strong indications that internal mechanisms within the brain that are related to taking a certain action are already at work before an actual conscious choice is made about taking that action. This raises the question of whether we even initiate our actions via a conscious act of will as opposed to exercising some degree of executive control or even veto power over actions already set in motion by our biological programming. This suggests that our free wills might necessarily be confined to making judgments about whether actions we are automatically programmed to take actually get carried out.

As complex and as controversial as the questions surrounding the concept of free will are, I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. Suffice it to say, however, that over many years of counseling individuals struggling with various problems, especially problems related to behaving responsibly, I have met many whose lives seem to have been literally ruled by their appetites, whims, emotions, etc. — as opposed to guided by their wills. Inevitably, the lives of such individuals became a shipwreck because no conscientious, capable captain was at the wheel to navigate the tumultuous waters of the storms of life. In some cases the captain was simply overwhelmed by the demands of the task. In other cases, the captain was too impaired by substances, mental or emotional fatigue, or other factors to handle the task, even in the calmest of waters. In any case, becoming a stronger, wiser, more competent navigator appeared to be the key factor in charting a better course for the future. And the fact that so many folks I’ve known seem to have been able to do this is a testament to me that the human will can indeed become more developed, strengthened, and capable of more principled guidance when adequate attention and proper methodology is afforded the task.

I suppose the debate over just how free humans are to make choices will continue indefinitely. But there seems something inherently empowering as well as liberating in the notion that we all have it within us to be more than just a slave to our fears and desires. And there appears nothing more genuinely human than assisting someone in the task of learning how to adaptively and responsibly manage their affairs.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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