Free Will Belief May Someday Go Poof

Free Will Belief May Someday Go Poof

Google is like the Superman of the internet. But still, there are times when I just can’t find what I’m searching for, no matter how hard I try. It’s funny how there seems to be an endless stream of clickbait lists covering every conceivable topic that you could possibly imagine, on the internet today, and yet I couldn’t find a single composed list of people who don’t/didn’t believe in free will. Interesting, no? I know there are such people. And I count myself among them. But I couldn’t find a single list.

In a recent conversation I was party to, someone stated that Einstein wrote that he did not believe in free will. If you google “einstein free will,” you will find several such quotes that make it abundantly clear that Albert Einstein, the man Time magazine designated its “Person of the Century” (December 1999) did not believe in free will, and had stated so, unequivocally. Here are two such example quotes to illustrate this fact:

I do not believe in free will … This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.” — Albert Einstein, (1932) My Credo

If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord.  …  So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.” — Albert Einstein, 1931

In a 2012 issue of American Atheist magazine, there appeared an interview with the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson (“An Interview with E. O. Wilson,” by Ce Atkins), in which Wilson similarly appears not to believe in free will:

Ce Atkins:  You call free will “the product of the subconscious decision-making center of the brain that gives the cerebral cortex the illusion of independent action … we are free as independent beings, but our decisions are not free of all the organic processes that created our personal brains and minds.” Do you think the concept of “free will” will be thrown out, so to speak?

E. O. Wilson:  Yes. I think the primary reason we have confusion over free will is that we haven’t yet understood well enough how the human brain works. When we’ve got the amygdala all straightened out, the parietal controlling areas understood, when we understand the machinery, which is so complicated as to almost seem divine at times, then we’ll be able to talk about free will in new terms.

I like an analogy I saw one time, comparing the human mind to an elephant bearing a rider. Daniel Akst, in his review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which was published in Newsday (“Are we a species of hypocrites?,” March 18, 2012), wrote:

Haidt envisions the human mind as an elephant bearing a rider. The latter may believe he’s steering, but the giant beast below is actually in charge. The rider is our rational self, and exists only to serve the elephant, who represents the great mass of mental processes that occur outside consciousness.

I don’t want to misrepresent Haidt’s views, so I don’t want to imply that he does not believe in free will. I don’t know where he stands on this issue. I just like that analogy, as retold by Akst. It also kind of reminds me of something the neuroscientist David Eagleman once wrote:  “Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.”

When I ask people whether they believe in free will, the initial response I sometimes hear is: “It’s complicated.” And I agree. For example, when someone responds “Oh, so you’re a determinist?” I say “No, not in an absolute sense” and explain that in my opinion the vagaries of quantum mechanics suggest ruling that out. Many times I describe my viewpoint this way: “Think of a puppet, but with hundreds of trillions of strings” attached. Countless things affect our actions. It’s not just the sheer complexity of the brain itself, and quantum mechanics, and DNA, and all of our past experiences, but even something as seemingly insignificant as the weather (temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, storm conditions) can affect our actions and our mood.

In short, it all comes down to nature and nurture — genes and environment. And as someone once put it: “our genes are the bullet, environment pulls the trigger.”

In the Sunday Business section of the May 29, 2016 edition of the New York Times, under the heading “Self-Made or Just Lucky?,” the Times published some responses they received for Robert H. Frank’s “Successful? You’ve Already Won the Lottery,” May 22 column. That column (The Upshot, Economic View), explored “the role that chance — even in such things as a person’s date of birth or the first letter in a last name — can play in life.” This is one reader’s response:

I used to tell people that I earned my success, that I worked hard for it. Then a friend asked, “Did you choose the genes you were born with, that gave you your talent, or the formative experiences you had, that gave you your work ethic?” Now I simply tell people I’ve been very fortunate. — Phat, Waterloo, Ontario

Isn’t this so true? Just think of all the countless factors that came into play in your life that you did not choose and had absolutely no control over.

And are you acquainted with the ‘extended mind’ hypothesis? Here is how Melvyn Goodale describes it in the opening paragraph of his review of Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, which was published in the British scientific journal Nature (Vol 457, Jan. 29, 2009):

In Supersizing the Mind, philosopher Andy Clark makes the compelling argument that the mind extends beyond the body to include the tools, symbols and other artefacts we deploy to engage the world. According to Clark and other proponents of the ‘extended mind’ hypothesis, the laptop on which I am writing this review is coupled to my brain and has become part of my mind. Manipulating sentences on the screen can prompt new insights and new ways of conveying ideas, a reiterative cognitive process that would be difficult to achieve without such a tool. The same argument applies to my BlackBerry, to the white board  in my office, and even to the conversations I might have with my colleagues. Cognition, Clark argues, is not ‘brain-bound’ but a dynamic interaction between the neural circuits inside our skulls, our bodies and the objects and events in the outside world.

This illustrates, to some extent, what I mean when I point out there are “hundreds of trillions” of strings influencing our behavior. The outside world plays an outsized underappreciated role in everything we do. In fact, I can’t even read this without realizing that this blog post itself would likely be different — perhaps markedly different — if I simply had a good pair of eyeglasses that I could use for close-up work like this. (I’m basically working with just one eye.) But I digress.

Getting back to Einstein and his views concerning free will. This inspired me to do a Google search for Marilyn vos Savant’s views on free will. (She has had a long-running, weekly question-and-answer column in Parade magazine; and used to be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world’s highest IQ [Guinness has since retired that category]). But as another perfect example of how Google sometimes disappoints … I could not find an answer to that question. Nothing!

However, while engaging in this search, I did stumble upon something interesting. This comes from a forum found on Marilyn vos Savant’s website (and is attributed simply to “Jeremy”):

“Since humans are a part of the universe and we are aware of the universe, is human life actually the universe becoming aware of itself?”

That’s a very intriguing thought and an interesting question, even if it doesn’t address the topic of free will itself.

Free will (or lack thereof) … it’s such an interesting topic. But truthfully, I would infinitely rather talk about what we must do to save the planet.

Postscript: Here is something I had meant to include but inadvertently left out. Neuroscientist Sam Harris also doesn’t believe in free will; and he sometimes addresses this topic. He has written more than half a dozen books, including Free Will (less than 100 pages). His “Waking Up” podcast won a Webby Award earlier this year. You can go to and listen to podcast #39 Free Will Revisited / July 4, 2016 / Sam Harris speaks with philosopher Daniel Dennett about free will. It is one hour and 44 minutes long.