The Implications of Free Will
By Graham Everhart
Do you control what you do? That depends on your definition of “control.” I won’t go full Vsauce-Michael-Here on you, but free will is one of those concepts that makes less sense the more you think about it. Many religious groups and philosophers claim it exists. Many claim it doesn’t. I claim that it’s impossible to know for sure, but I can analyze its consequences.
Human minds, at a fundamental level, are input/output devices. The mind receives inputs from three sources:
- Memories, telling it what happened in the past.
- The senses — sight, hearing, etc. — telling it what’s happening in the present.
- Hormones — adrenaline, testosterone, etc. — telling it what to do in the near future.
It then takes these inputs, processes them, and decides on an output: a physical action to take. Outputs are things like moving, speaking, eating, drinking, or doing nothing at all. Here’s a typical input/output chain:
- Sensory input: I feel my phone buzz in my pocket.
- Memory input: I remember that my phone buzzes when I get a notification.
- Output: I pull out my phone and check it.
- Sensory input: I see that my best friend sent me a Snapchat.
- Memory input: I remember that she hates when people leave her “on read.”
- Hormonal input: I feel tired and lack the motivation to put effort into a reply.
- Output: I take a blurry selfie, caption it “Streaks”, and call it good.
Whether free will exists depends on how the mind processes inputs and outputs. There are three main possibilities:
- The mind follows a rigid thought process. Therefore people with the exact same inputs will always produce the exact same outputs. Free will doesn’t exist.
- The mind follows a thought process with a degree of randomness. Therefore people with the exact same inputs will always produce the exact same range of possible outputs. Free will doesn’t exist.
- The mind follows a thought process with a degree of choice independent from any input. Therefore people with the exact same inputs will produce different outputs in an unpredictable, but not random, fashion. Free will exists!
Why can’t we determine which of these possibilities is true? It comes down to the fact that inputs cannot be accurately duplicated. Suppose identical twins are raised in identical sheltered environments à la The Truman Show. There would still be minor variations between the environments due to experimental error. The lighting in the twins’ first-grade classrooms would differ slightly. Or one twin’s meal would be cooked slightly more than the other’s. If their behavior diverges, the experimenters couldn’t be sure if they have free will or if they accidentally received different inputs.
So there’s no way to prove that any of these possibilities are true. But what would their effects be? Suppose an all-seeing, all-knowing organization — we’ll call it “God’s FBI” — is tasked with predicting your future.
In a universe where possibility 1 is true, their job is easy. Each input you receive will cause you to produce one definite output. Each output you produce will cause you to receive one definite input. God’s FBI can just string these inputs, outputs, and re-inputs together to predict your future with 100 percent accuracy. This universe has predestination: your life, and everybody else’s, is “destined” to be lived in a particular way.
Their job is harder in a possibility-2 universe. Each input you receive can have multiple possible outputs. God’s FBI must predict each possible output of an input, the inputs each possible output generates, each possible output of each possible input from each possible output of an input, and so on. The further into your future they look, the less they can predict. Your life isn’t predestined, but it’s still outside your control.
In a possibility-3 universe, God’s FBI resigns in disgrace. Since you have free will, your outputs are impossible to predict, even if your inputs are known. This means one of two things:
- Your outputs are impossible to predict because your inputs do not affect your outputs in any way.
- Your behavior is impossible to predict because you receive hidden inputs that cannot be detected in any way.
It’s easily demonstrated that inputs affect outputs. I feel my phone buzz, so I check it. You read one of my columns, so you get smarter. Donald Trump becomes president, so the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. This leaves only the latter option: free will exists because some inputs are undetectable. Therefore, for possibility 3 to be true, free will must exist outside the known boundaries of reality. The simpler, and therefore more likely, explanation is that free will doesn’t exist at all. Choice is an illusion.
This is unpalatable to many people. Motivation, in all forms, stems from the belief that what you choose to do affects what happens to you later. If you don’t have a choice — if your choice is solely determined by fate or a roll of the dice — then you have no control over your actions. Why should society reward good behavior and punish bad behavior? You don’t deserve to be held accountable for choices you didn’t freely choose to make. Right?
Wrong. That’s a misconception. Here’s why: even if we don’t control our outputs, we’ll end up producing the right outputs if we get the right inputs. If free will doesn’t exist, reward and punishment aren’t designed to motivate you to act well, they’re designed to motivate your brain to act well on your behalf. Just because you don’t control what you do doesn’t mean you’ll do the wrong thing. Your brain will do what it thinks your free will would choose to do anyway. And there’s no meaningful difference between the two. Free will and predestination might not be opposites after all.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on free will. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or talk to me in person.
ADDENDUM: Most of the information in this article is a product of the author and not the philosophical research of others. Other interesting viewpoints on free will may be found here: