Do We Have Free Will?

Zubair Talib
6 min readOct 30, 2020

The neuroscience behind consciousness, free will, and the surprising implications for criminal justice.

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Do We Have Free Will?

Free will is defined as the ability to act at one’s own discretion. Consciousness is awareness of internal or external existence.

Well, most of us can agree, it certainly feels like we are conscious and have free will — that we decide to do what we want to do and are not compelled by some determined force. However, scientists are generally mixed on this topic, but mostly agree: we do NOT have free will.

As has been seen from earlier blogs, much about our behavior is driven by environment and evolution of our brains. We can get decidedly different behavior based on some circumstances, certain environmental queues, or even as a function of our history. Not many of us would dispute that we’ll grab the last cookie when we’re hungry, or that we’ll snap at someone when we’re tired, and we’ll all agree that things like implicit bias and others are perhaps modulated effects that take place that INFLUENCE our behavior. But most of us are hard-pressed to state that outright we don’t have free will. It certainly feels like “yes, while I took the last cookie because I was hungry, if I had tried harder I could have exerted my free will and not had it.”

Most of us, also generally agree with the scientific method and that if shown enough scientific evidence that A causes B, well then A causes B. And given that we can demonstrate many of the causal systems physically and biologically AND that we know many of the behavioral attributes shown earlier, the question is not whether we have free will, but the challenge for scientists is where physically would free will emerge from? Which set of neurons or biological chemicals can you point to that INITIATE free will.

The more likely scenario claimed by Daniel Dennett and others is that evolutionarily we have developed biological processes with the emergent phenomena that we FEEL conscious and that we FEEL like we have free will. But in actuality we are just a big bag of chemicals that responds exclusively as a function of our environment. With 100B neurons and 100T connections its a very complicated system — but nonetheless it does not violate or use any new physics that we don’t know of. That being said, scientists absolutely cannot explain the system — and so it is yet entirely possible that there is some unexplained phenomena or physics that will yet be learned about (or never learned about) that will explain free will and the soul.

There’s a nice article in the New Yorker that shared Dennett’s perspective here:

Just last year 17 universities and $7M of research funding came together to try to solve the mystery of free will. I’ll be watching intently!

Is It Possible The Soul Still Exists?

There are a number of interesting scientific and philosophical issues with this question itself. What is the soul? Does it matter if the soul is an emergent property of our bio-chemistry? Or does the soul need to be supernatural / magical for it to be important and for us as humans to be special? Is our essence and very being invalidated if it’s described by biology and physics? Can machines be shown to have a soul or consciousness? Would that also minimize our existence?

Complicated questions. But just as a practical matter, scientists cannot clearly state whether we have a soul, and as we saw from above they can’t even definitively state whether we have free will or not. Furthermore, very few minimize the uniqueness and beauty of our biologically organized consciousness and the meaning we can derive and provide to the universe through thought, creation, expression, art, philosophy, and science.

Yet still, for those of us that want to believe in a unique soul, David Eagleman gave a great anecdote to explain theoretically how our current understanding might be misleading us and how we could still have a soul not yet described by science: If pre-modern hunter gathers would receive a transistor radio from the sky, they could take it apart and potentially explain how all the circuits work and how A connects to B and how sound comes out of the speaker. They could convince themselves that they understand how the radio works — but they may never be able to explain or understand that the voices they hear do NOT come from the radio itself, but perhaps from a city dozens of miles away from humans in a radio broadcast booth for example. There’s a great podcast with David Eagleman on a variety of neuroscience topics, and you can listen to the 3 minutes clip on free will in the podcast here or the full podcast here:

This podcast with Lisa Feldman Barrett discuss the notion of the brain as a prediction machine rather than a discrete computational response system. She also discusses the presence of analog signals (rather than just digital switches) as well as the role that noise and stochastic processes play in our neural architecture and cognitive system. In doing so, she raises the point that we don’t actually fully understand what’s going on in the brain but it is NOT easily described by a digital machine AND perhaps that very noise or “stochasticness” IS the source of what we consider free will.

Either way, to me it’s clear that science does not currently know enough to state that there is no free will or no soul. The soul appears to me to continue to be a useful construct in guiding our behavior, but also an aspirational goal to better understand both the science of our brain (and biological systems) as well as the philosophical questions of the meaning of life and purpose of existence.

Neuroscience and our Antiquated Criminal Justice System

Another interesting topic is the US criminal justice system and if its approach is supported by neuroscience. Spoiler alert, the answer is no.

I highly recommend this short article by Robert Sapolsky or this slightly longer one by David Eagleman that are complete with great examples and insights on the topic. I won’t do it justice :) but I’ll aim to summarize some key points here.

  1. The concept of “blame” is antiquated and unhelpful
  2. We should have a forward looking practical view on criminal justice

Our brains are different and our behaviors are driven by many causes — not because we are simplistically bad. And whether you believe we have free will or not, science can demonstrably show that many behaviors are driven by your brain’s development, genes, environment, biochemical mix (hormones, etc.). You can see some key concepts in the earlier blogs on behavior biology and environment.

It is problematic to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone breaking the law and conclude. “Well, I wouldn’t have done that” — because if you weren’t exposed to in utero cocaine, lead poisoning, and physical abuse, and he was, then you and he are not directly comparable. You cannot walk a mile in his shoes.

Given our different brains, there are a myriad of better and more effective ways to treat offenders and prevent future crimes, all backed by science and evidence.

The scientists do not state that there is not a place for prison, nor that certain people shouldn’t be taken off the street — quite the contrary. But they propose a better understanding of what treatments could work, for example, often times mental health can be treated more effectively and certainly less expensively by drugs rather than sending individuals to prolonged prison sentences.

The key idea suggested by the neuroscientists is summarized as follows:

A systematic focus on disease and treatment, rather than evil and punishment, would save lives and prevent needless suffering.

This article is part of series of posts about the brain. Feel free to check out the start of the series here which includes links to the other articles on neuroanatomy, behavior, learning, AI, and free will.