Who says there’s no such thing as free will?

Who says there’s no such thing as free will? Quite a few people, it turns out. Philosophers, scientists and best-selling public intellectuals, some with real sway.

“This sort of free will [such as choosing between an apple or a banana from the fruit bowl] is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics” says an evolutionary biologist quoted in this considered article by Oliver Burkeman.

The article offers a scan of the field and comes down in favour of a more nuanced understanding of what free will entails. And it got me wondering, because underlying assumptions about what we are and are not capable of deciding and doing must have a big bearing on how we – as individuals and as a global community – relate and respond to cascading environmental breakdown. If we truly live in a clockwork universe, absent free will, then why sweat it?


My kids and I sometimes joke about a universe in which everything, up to this precise moment at this very dinner table, has been predetermined since the first millisecond of the Big Bang. (Small people raised on YouTube, The Matrix and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have no trouble wrangling these kinds of concepts.) The idea being that if you could trace the chain of causation back to the dawn of time, measuring and computing every single interaction among every particle in the cosmos since then, while somehow offsetting the effects of subatomic quantum randomness, you would know in advance, with 100% certainty, whether we are now in a universe in which Didi’s next move is to take a bite of sausage, or a nearly identical one in which he goes for a mouthful of mashed potato instead. Testing yourself against that notion is fun because no matter how firmly you trust the laws of physics, you can’t shake the sensation that you are your own decider. The “feeling that we are the authors of our choices,” as Burkeman calls it. This, despite copious evidence that we and our predispositions are to a disturbing degree the product of forces beyond our control. That we behave, surprisingly often, like marionettes.

But then there’s cats. Who – despite an embarrassing weakness for wool yarn and laser pointers – do what they want, all the time. Just like very small children. Which means, in effect, all of us…given half a chance.

Children don’t like being continually told what to do by grownups, though they begrudgingly adapt to it under pressure. Especially in cultures like ours, where giving and taking orders is normalized. But all else being equal they’d rather do their own thing. (See: pets.) We carry that taste for freedom into adulthood, even as the inevitable constraints of physical environment, cultural conditioning and social responsibilities close in. It’s something to do with a sense of personal agency, the ability to affect our own lives. The element of autonomy that is the birthright of every living organism. I’d hazard a guess that this is what we’re really talking about when we talk about free will. It might even be the essence of what it is to be alive.

From this perspective, declaring free will to be incompatible with the laws of physics might as well be read as an indictment of the laws of physics. Because denying that organisms have the ability to affect their own lives is in effect to deny life. It renders us all, from amoebas to Americans (no offence), as automata. Or, as some would have it, as “human resources”, “consumers”, “data points”. Test subjects in a behavioural science lab. Disconnected entities programmed to “choose” within pre-set parameters, who respond to stimuli and pursue incentives but subjectively experience neither life’s greatest gift nor the responsibilities that come with that gift.

One problem with addressing free will purely from the Western scientific perspective is that subjective experience, such as the sense of personal agency, can’t be measured in units. Which means that it has to be framed as an outlier pending future research, or otherwise “proven” not to exist.

But the bigger problem, in relation to today’s faltering planetary systems, is that imposing a laws-of-physics approach locks us into an instrumental, transactional picture of life-the-universe-and-everything, while delegitimating the more connected, relational aspects of our collective wellbeing. Aspects of being which offer a key to the future.

To properly meet the challenge we have to celebrate agency and connection, laterally and longitudinally throughout the whole family of life. We need a broader kind of science and perhaps a different flavour of desktop philosophy. We must indeed sweat it – the future is all to play for.

Quoting once again the Aboriginal elder Dr Noel Nannup, we each “have a piece of the path to the future…and we polish that and we hone that, and we place that in the pathway that we are building, and as we build that pathway it changes us…and shapes the destination we are going to.”

To me that sounds like responsible agency. Or in other words, free will.

2 Replies to “Who says there’s no such thing as free will?”

  1. Thanks for this, Chris. I love how you build the case for the primacy of life and the experience of life/free will. It is beautifully done. My daughter and I were just talking about how indigenous ways of knowing have been excluded from the concept of science and scientists, to the detriment of us all for so long.
    Also love the cartoon! Merry Christmas!

    1. Very true, Michelle, in respect of indigenous ways of knowing. It’s an exciting time now that some of those barriers are breaking down. About time too! Merry Christmas to you all!

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