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The Freedom of Will

In the previous blog I looked into arguments ‘against’ Free Will. Now lets look into the other side of the coin for arguments in favour of Free Will.


Introspection & Will Power

From time to time we engage in a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about our own mind. This awareness of our internal thoughts, feelings, and motives comes from the experience of looking inwards, or introspecting. By engaging in introspective process, we can clearly distinguish between compulsion and a free act. If we can identify and be aware of this contrast then we can, to some extent control our decision making process and the outcome of our decision itself. If we have the ability to introspect then there has to be a room for free will. There’s got to be some difference between taking a free decision and when we are being compelled/forced into one.

Also, how do we account for the creative freedom felt by an artist when he/she is creating a work of art, writing a book or yogis and monks who exhibit incredible mastery over their body by using their sheer will power and conscious self control.

Ethical Appraisal

If everything stems from and can be attributed to determinism then why do we condemn some people for their actions and praise/glorify someone else’s? Good vs Bad behaviour, Moral vs Immoral are all integral to our society and we live by these standards. Now, where does our sense of morality stem from might be deterministic but our entire legal system works on this very principle. If everything is predetermined then no one should ever get punished for their actions. Insanity plea works on this very notion or else all of the mentally disabled people who commit a crime will be punished.

So, if we are condemning some and praising some then we are clearly affirming free will.

Paradox of ‘No’ Free Will – Pragmatic Self Refutation

If all of the assertions and inferences against the idea of free will is to be accepted, then the very act of accepting itself, like we must or should accept, shows that we need a free will to do so, because ‘must’ and ‘should’ clearly implies choices which are predicated on us exercising our freedom of decision making. When a lawyer is presenting his arguments for or against something to a jury, he/she is clearly appealing to the free will of the jury members.

So, in the arguments which are being provided against free will, there is an implicit expectation and acknowledgment of the acceptance or rejection of these arguments using our ability to chose one over the other.


Is free will compatible with determinism? That is, can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Deterministic chain of events need not necessarily negate the idea of free will but rather facilitate it. For one to exercise their free will like raising their hand or kicking a ball etc needs a deterministic chain of events to take place to enable the end act. If not for this determinism, the will might very well be there but it might not lead to an action.

Imagine a person with paralysis, they might have all the will to move their limb but they lack the mechanism to do so. So they clearly do not have any freedom. However a person with dementia might have the freedom to move but may not have the will. We can keep extending this to a toddler, an adolescent, an adult and finally to those monks and other pockets of people who have a firm grip on their cognitive processes. So in every segment there is varying degrees of freedom. Right from zero to some degree. The question comes down to having the 'will' itself to use this freedom.

In fact, only when a physicist works by the laws of physics or a mathematician conforms to the rules of mathematics; they can freely do what they need to do. This clearly indicates that for one to exercise their freedom of working on physics or mathematics they need a set of predefined rules and boundaries.

So, determinism and freedom of the will need not be contradictory?

To exercise one you need the other to facilitate it?

Human Behaviour

The last few decades, a lot of Impetus and sustenance have come from technology, specifically the inventions of ways to assess activity of the structures of the human brain and central nervous system.

The existence of diagnostic hardware such as fMRI and PET scanners, which let us peek inside brains while they are still alive and thinking, has encouraged some neuroscientists to think they can find the locus of moral responsibility, the seat of love and all manner of things in the gaudy images produced by brain scans. But although our mental lives depend on the brain, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our behaviour is best understood by looking inside it. It’s like the old joke about a drunk who drops his car keys at night and walks down the road to look for them under a distant streetlight—not because that’s where they’re likely to be, but because it’s where he can see.

Does every desire lead to an action. Our decisions and end actions might be caused by a chain of events but does that mean we always act upon these desires and thoughts that are predetermined?

Intent and Want

We often form the intent to act in certain ways. But, we don’t always follow through with an action. Similarly, we often want things but, we don’t always pursue what we want. For instance, we might tell ourselves that we will get up early and go for a run or do yoga etc however when the time does come for us to wake up, our bed feels so cosy or its raining outside, today is not the right day etc etc. Our brain conjures up all kinds of excuses and reasons for not getting up. So the intent and want might very well be there but it does not translate into an action. It works the other way too where some people might want to engage in morally reprehensible acts and yet they manage not to follow through with it. Not just because they might get caught but rather they are aware the act is immoral and hence they use some form of self control.

So, Resting Potential in the Libet experiment must really be capturing something more like an URGE than an intention to act. So, actions can be preceded by lots of different things, none of which seem to guarantee the action. Also, this experiment is limited to motor functionality, which mostly runs on auto pilot and doesn't really say much about decisions that need a lot of cognitive engagement.

Free Won’t

In the Libet experiment, if the brain is sending out a signal to move a muscle, it cannot be stopped within .05 seconds of the muscle movement. Given that we become aware of the decision to move -200ms before muscle activation, this leaves 0.1 seconds, or a one-tenth of a second window during which we have the ability to “veto” the urge to move (again just limited to motor function).

So, perhaps the urges/desires are delivered outside of our control, but WHICH urges we give in to and which ones we don’t are within our control (due to our veto power) if we can stretch the narrow window of opportunity. Considering we mostly run on auto-pilot and act from our unconscious mind, perhaps our true ability to exercise our freedom does not really come from free 'will' but rather from free 'wont' because this is when we shift from our sub/unconscious mind which forces us to act from our conditioning, memory etc and hence our deterministic behaviour to conscious mind where we can use our higher functions like reason, logic, rationality, will power etc.


If our choices are based on rational decisions then why do different kinds of rationalities originate in different people. We all use some criteria and factors to make a certain choice. Now these factors might be deterministic and stem from our conditioning and limited memory, however the very act of finalizing on a choice based on these criteria, shows that we are indeed exercising some form of free will. The only way we can negate free will using reason alone is by coming up with an axiom other than free will itself and there should be no other axioms. So, as we can see its an infinite loop.

Axiom of Choice

Lets assume we are asked to pick our five favourite movies of all time. Now, how do we select these five in the infinite choices at our disposal? What criteria are we going to use to make the selection. Once we have identified the five choices, what if we are asked to rate the movies. Now, the question is we have to bring additional factors/criteria to decide on ordering them based on a set preference and then rate/order them in certain sequence. Finally if we are asked to take our time to perform these two tasks in a week’s time, how will that change the selections we make? So as we keep going, there are infinitely many ways in which we can make a selection and this process gives us more wriggle room if the decision is to be made in the future.

Free Will in the Future

We seem to have more free will over events further in the future and we get locked into determinism the closer those events get to the present. Immediate events are mostly driven by our unconscious minds which we have little to no control over.

When we consider all of these factors, it does make a case for some free will. We could be presented with a set of choices that are predetermined and most of the time the choice we make does depend on our conditioning but if we can exercise some form of conscious thought process into the decision making, then I think we can to some extent override these natural triggers and forces. So anything that is driven by auto-pilot has zero free will but anything that happens in our awareness has some degree of free will and the ability to exercise that will obviously depend on our will power, intentions etc. So we do have some freedom, so the question is if we have the will to go with it.

Now that we are armed with some semblance of knowledge about the inner workings of 'free will', what can we do with this knowledge? Can we somehow reconcile both sides of the coin and bridge the gap. Can we somehow assimilate our understanding and knowledge of the deterministic nature of our supposed free will, the randomness element of the universe and through introspection and mindfulness; can we alter the factors leading up to a decision? Probing into these relevant contextual conditions that influence the resultant behaviour, should help bridge this gap to some extent. A good understanding of the conditions under which we behave might allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered.

P.S: This blog is inspired by talks of Swami Sarvapriyananda, Pravrajika Divyanandaprana and Sam Harris!

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