Free Will: Is It Real? Or Mere Illusion?

In the early 1930s, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was bored: bored with his teaching job, bored with the state of philosophy, bored with his lack of life experience. So he traveled to Berlin for a year, where he studied philosophy and laid the foundations for the intellectual hybrid that became modern existentialism. The question that preoccupied Sartre more than any other was this: What does it mean to be free? Sartre thought freedom was at the heart of all human experience; human beings are defined, he believed, by their radical freedom. They are free of any deterministic traits and create their nature through action, one choice at a time.

Looking back from the twenty-first century, that view of human nature is hard to recognize. Decades of research into the workings of the mind and its effects on behavior have led us to far more skeptical conclusions about the role of free will. In his new book, Behave, Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky attributes human behavior primarily to genes, hormones, evolution, and the environment. Free will not only doesn’t exist, according to Sapolsky; it is also irrelevant (though he admits that it is actually quite difficult to live one’s life as though one doesn’t have free will).

Sapolsky’s view conflicts, however, with research highlighted by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett doesn’t argue that humans have free will; he suggests rather that whether or not people believe they are free to act can itself affect their behavior. He points to an experiment that validates this claim: Two groups of students were given a short text to read. One of the texts made the case that free will is an illusion. After reading the passage, students solved a puzzle. The subjects who read the passage denying free will cheated on the puzzle to a far higher degree than the second group — apparently showing less concern for the consequences of their actions.

Where does the feeling of being free to choose come from? Yale researchers Paul Bloom and Adam Bear have argued that free will is a kind of involuntary illusion. “In the very moments that we experience a choice, our minds are rewriting history, fooling us into thinking that this choice — that was actually completed after its consequences were subconsciously perceived — was a choice that we had made all along,” explains Bear.

French existentialism wouldn’t have taken the shape it did without the backdrop of World War II and the moral dilemmas that characterize wartime. The question of free will is today no less tied to the dilemmas and anxieties of our own age: with the proliferation of machine learning and the spread of technology into every area of life, it is little wonder that freedom and determinism are among the inescapable topics of our time.




Other reading on the subject of free will:
What Is Free Will? (Closer to Truth)
Big Questions in Free Will Project (video) (Closer to Truth)
Mind over Masters: The Question of Free Will (World Science Festival)

Editor, ORBITER magazine