How free is our will?
If we all come with pre-wired traits and with adaptations based on our past experiences, are our decisions ever truly free? 

When I give talks demonstrating that we all have innate psychological predispositions – traits that influence our behaviour across our lifetimes – I often get asked what implications this has for free will. If our behaviours are affected in some way by our genes or by the way our brains are wired, doesn’t that mean that we’re really not that free after all?

The answer depends, I think, on the kind of free will you’re after and on an understanding of the mechanisms by which we make choices. And let me say at the outset that we do make choices. The idea that neuroscience has somehow done away with free will altogether or proven that it is an illusion is nonsense. All neuroscience has shown is that when you are making decisions, things are happening in your brain.

This is, to put it mildly, not a surprise – where else would things be happening? And it really has no implications for free will, unless you are a dualist. If you think of the mind as some kind of object that has existence independent of the brain, then I suppose you might be upset to find that your decisions have a physical basis in brain activity. But if you think of “mind” not as an object but as an activity or process – the brain in action – then, well, seeing the brain in action as you make a decision is just what you’d expect.

So, yes, we make choices – really, really. But how free are those choices? How much are they constrained by other things over which we really have no control? How much are they affected by antecedent causes?

In particular, if I have some psychological traits over which I had (and continue to have) no control, and those traits influence my behaviour (or at least my behavioural tendencies) then am I really fully in control of my own actions? If someone asks me to a party and I decide not to go, is that because I’m wired to be shy? Perhaps I could have chosen to go, and maybe sometimes I do, but maybe only because I happen to be in a sociable mood or feeling brave that day, and maybe I am not in control of that either.

Well, the first thing to say is that this problem arises no matter the origin of our psychological traits. In my book INNATE, I present the evidence that variation in genetics and in the processes of brain development lead to innate psychological differences between people, which affect the trajectory of their lives, influencing their experiences, the way they react to them, and the types of habitual behaviours they develop. But if you’d rather believe (in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence) that all such traits come completely from experience instead, the problem is just as acute.  

If we each have real and stable characteristics of temperament and personality, then it doesn’t really matter for this question of free will whether they came from genetics and brain development, or our experiences and environment. In either situation, some antecedent causes have affected the physical structures of our brains in a way that influences our decisions, right now, at this moment. In which case, you could argue, that our will is not so free after all.

In one sense, this is trivial – our decisions, in any given situation, are of course affected by our prior experiences and our current goals. The whole point of having a brain is that it lets you learn from the results of actions you have taken in the past in various types of scenarios. That information is then used to predict the outcomes of a range of possible actions that could be taken when such a scenario is encountered again.

I don’t think anyone sees that as undermining our free will – indeed, you could say that choosing between those options, based on what we have learned of the world, in order to further our own goals, is the process of free will in action.

It is the idea that the options open to us are constrained somehow by our underlying psychological predispositions that seems to threaten our freedom.

And this does seem to be the case. In the first instance, the range of options that even occur to us – that somehow arise in our brains for consideration – is limited by our personality traits and experiences. Two different people in ostensibly the same situation, with the same primary goal, may nevertheless be choosing from a very different set of possible actions. This is because the interplay of their underlying traits and their experiences across their lives will have created a very different set of additional goals, constraints, and heuristics.

For example, two people in a meeting may share a goal of advancing their ideas on some topic under discussion. But one of them may have a conflicting goal – avoid social embarrassment at all costs. This may be due to a natural inclination towards shyness, reinforced by a lifetime of experience, where social interaction is not as intrinsically rewarding as it is for other people, and where the subjective feeling of embarrassment is more acutely felt.

Even if it is not consciously perceived, that goal of avoiding embarrassment may act as a powerful constraint on the person’s behaviour. They may come home and complain to their partner how they’d wished they’d been brave enough to speak up – instead, stupid Gary who never shuts up dominated the meeting as usual and ended up getting his way. “I wish I had more confidence!”, they might say, conceding that their conscious desires were somehow thwarted by their underlying psychological make-up. 

The decider-in-chief 

This seems to be the type of thing people are worrying about when confronted with the evidence that we really do have lasting psychological traits that influence our behaviour. And this worry appears to be more keenly felt when such traits are shown to have a physical basis in the way our brains are wired. It seems to threaten the primacy of our conscious selves in the decision-making process.

Perhaps we’re like a puppet president – making “decisions” about what to do, but only from the highly limited set of options presented to us by the generals and civil servants – limited based on criteria we are never aware of. Or maybe we’re not even really making the decisions at all – perhaps even that stage of the process is dominated by subconscious factors. Maybe we’re like a magician’s stooge, impelled to make certain decisions through influences beyond our apprehension, with only an illusion of control.

Personally, I think this goes too far. It can certainly be demonstrated that many of the decisions we make are affected by things of which we are not aware. That does not mean that all the decisions we make are like that. Even if we’re on cognitive autopilot most of the time, that doesn’t mean we can’t ever take the controls. And anyway, being on cognitive autopilot most of the time is not necessarily a bad thing – quite the opposite, in fact.

The last thing we would want is to have to make decisions from first principles every time we are doing something. If we had to consciously weigh up every aspect of every decision in every situation we find ourselves in we’d be paralysed by indecision. And we’d quickly be some other critter’s lunch. Life comes at you fast – vacillate and die.

Habits and heuristics

Instead, most of our behaviour is effectively habitual. We learn from experience over our lifetimes that certain behaviours are profitable or appropriate in certain situations – these are the heuristics that subconsciously guide most of our actions. And our behaviour is even shaped by our ancestor’s experiences, in the sense that we have inherited a suite of genetically determined behavioural tendencies that were adaptive in the environments and scenarios that our ancestors tended to find themselves in in the past.

Now, some people argue that if we can’t make decisions that are completely divorced from any preceding events, effects, or causes, that we are not really completely free at all. But why would we want to do that? Totally free decisions, uninformed by any prior events, would be essentially random and pointless (and highly likely to get you killed sooner or later).

Being free – to my mind at least – doesn’t mean making decisions for no reasons, it means making them for your reasons. Indeed, I would argue that this is exactly what is required to allow any kind of continuity of the self. If you were just doing things on a whim all the time, what would it mean to be you? We accrue our habits and beliefs and intentions and goals over our lifetime, and they collectively affect how actions are suggested and evaluated.

Whether we are conscious of that is another question. Most of our reasons for doing things are tacit and implicit – they’ve been wired into our nervous systems without our even being aware of them. But they’re still part of us ­– you could argue they’re precisely what makes us us. Even if most of that decision-making happens subconsciously, it’s still you doing it.

Ultimately, whether you think you have free will or not may depend less on the definition of “free will” and more on the definition of “you”. If you identify just as the president – the decider-in-chief – then maybe you’ll be dismayed at how little control you seem to have or how rarely you really exercise it. (Not never, but maybe less often than your ego might like to think).

But that brings us back to a very dualist position, identifying you with only your conscious mind, as if it can somehow be separated from all the underlying workings of your brain. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to think that you really comprise all of the machinery of government, even the bits that the president never sees or is not even aware exists.

That machinery is shaped by our shared evolutionary past, by each individual’s genetic heritage, by the particular trajectories of development of their brain, and by their accumulated experiences over their lifetime. Those things all shape the way we tend to behave in any given circumstance. That doesn’t mean we can never exercise deliberative and conscious control over our decisions – just that most of the time we don’t (in part because most of the time we don’t need to).

Can we choose not to be a certain way? No, probably not. But can we choose to act in a certain way despite having opposing tendencies – yes, absolutely, in some circumstances at least. This may be effortful – it may require habits of introspection and a high degree of self-awareness and discipline – but it can clearly be done. In fact, one of the strongest pieces of evidence that we really do have free will is that some people seem to have more of it than others.


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