Do we have free will?I used to think it was obvious that we have free will. Now I have doubts. Your freedom depends upon your income. If you don't have any money you don't have any freedom. Even...

Do we have free will?

I used to think it was obvious that we have free will. Now I have doubts. Your freedom depends upon your income. If you don't have any money you don't have any freedom. Even people with good incomes seem to do the same things as everybody else. They get married, have babies, buy a home, watch television, go to work, go to bed. If they get divorced they usually try to get married again and begin all over. Also we are learning that most of the activity of the human brain is unconscious. So our unconscious may be dictating most of the things we do.

11 Answers

lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I agree that there is evidence to suggest that free will is an illusion because of what seem to be biochemical and evolutionary imperatives, but the evidence is not all in on this issue, by any means.  And neurobiologists certainly are  discussing evidence to the contrary, evidence I am not knowledgeable enough to even summarize properly, except, as I understand it, the fact that we are able to peer into the workings of the brain and see neural activity that we have no awareness of before we make decisions does not necessarily mean that we do not have free will, but merely that our brains are engaged sometimes before we even realize it.  Surely, that is a good thing?  This reminds me of Freud and Jung to some degree.  People get troubled by the notion that our childhoods or a collective unconscious means we are not driving the car.  Every time someone discovers something or theorizes about our minds and brains, we all start worrying about free will, except for those whose religious faith do not subscribe to the notion of free will in the first place.  From a practical point of view, if we operate on the premise that we do not have free will, I predict a very bad ending for all of us. 

kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

Of course, Bill, I suspect you mean free will on large issues as opposed to the minutia of routine. It seems to me this is one of those questions we may never be able to answer. The reason is that we can only see the reflection of what might prove or disprove free will. We can't really know what we look like except by reflection off something else. That something else may be reliable or it may be skewed. Free will or lack of it is a part of our composition in the same way our appearance is: we can only see it by reflection, and it is not a given that we will perceive and/or judge our reflections rightly. I believe the question of free will is much more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no." I believe there are strands of what is called "will" that weave in and out, looping and twisting like particle paths in a particle accelerator. Some looping strands allow for willful choosing, some don't--or at least not immediately. I think the reason no one can get close to a definitive answer on free will is that there is not one. 

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

If we have free will, then how come so many of us end up where we never expected to be? How many men actually plan to spend their working lives driving garbage trucks? It would be interesting to take a survey and ask a few hundred of these men if they planned to be doing what they're doing. If people have free will, why don't they use it? Here is an interesting quote:

Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one's time, the better part of one's strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.   

                                 Chekhov, "The Lady with the Pet Dog"                                                                                                                      


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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think people make their own choices, but the choices they have are somewhat dictated by their opportunities.  Success in life basically means two things: you have opportunities, and you have the ability to recognize and act on them when they come your way.

In a fascinating book called Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how success is not caused just by pluck and determination.  Certain people have opportunities based on when and where they are born and the circumstances they are born into.

[Our] notion that it is the best and the brightest who effortlessly rise to the top is much too simplistic. (part 1, ch 5)

Gladwell argues that it is not just who we are born, but what opportunities we have, that makes us a success.  So while we may have free will, we also are drawn in certain directions.  Not everyone gets the chance to make the same choices.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I have to say that I don’t really think your argument shows a lack of free will.  I mean, so what if we all go to work, come home, watch TV, and go to bed?  We get to choose what sort of work we want to do.  We get to choose to some degree where we live.  I don’t watch TV, so there’s that, but even if you do, you have a million channels to choose from.  You get to decide when you go to bed.  I mean, these may all seem like relatively minor kinds of freedom, but we have all these choices, both in the long term and in the short term.

So I still think we have free will.  Sure, there are broad strokes in our lives that are similar, but we get to make plenty of choices.  We don’t all get married.  We don’t all have the same number of kids.  We don’t all make the same choices in terms of how much we want to material things.  We have choices in the big stuff and the little stuff.

michael-niagara's profile pic

Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

Yes, I believe we have free will.

It was your choice and decision to pose the one made you do it.

It was my choice to answer the question, no one made me answer it. I chose of my own free will to get involved in this discussion.

Having free will demands being accountable and responsible for thoughts and actions...something human beings do not always like... so it becomes an argument point to deny we have free will so we can deny accountability and responsibility.

It's a simple question and in exercising our free will we can get caught up in expounding answers that are much more complicated than they need to be.

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

To Frizzyperm: I think you and I are probably on the same page (as we are about evolution). I only used money as an example because it seems that anyone would have more free will if they had a lot of money and money has a way of getting involved with everything. But looking around, it seems that people with lots of money do pretty much the same things as people with little. They get married, have kids, buy houses (albeit bigger ones), drink whiskey (albeit unblended Scotch), drive cars (Rolls Royces), play golf, watch television, go someplace, come back, get old, die.

bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

It's not the government or a person's income that dictates what decisions a man or woman will make in life. We may not always be able to afford to live out all of our dreams, but a person should never simply awake, go to work, watch TV, and go to bed unless that is what one really wants to do. There are always a few hours in every day that one can pursue there interests, and there's always the weekends and days off to change the normal grind of the average working man.

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

What is the difference between willing and wishing? It seems to me that we are free to will anything at all, just as we are free to wish for anything at all, but we are not free to get anything we can think of to will or to wish for. Maybe we learn with age not to wish for things we can't have, so we think we have free will because we usually get the things we want and ignore the million other things we might will or wish or want.

shake99's profile pic

shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

I believe in free will, but I've never been able to formulate a good defense for it. In my own mind, I approach the concept in a roundabout way. First, I believe in God. While I can't prove that either, my belief in God is unshakable. Secondly, it would be completely pointless for God to create beings that did not have free will. Therefore, we do have free will. That's the way I look at it.

User Comments

frizzyperm's profile pic

frizzyperm | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

While I think your opening points are interesting, the notion of freewill is much more fundamentally doubtful than ideas regarding income or social background. Current understanding of biological conciousness suggests that we simply do not have freewill on a biological level.