Nothing is more terrifying than being out of control. If you’ve ever hallucinated, or hydroplaned in your car, or been the victim of a violent crime — there’s an overwhelming sense that your fate is no longer in your hands. Whether or not you live or die feels like a matter of chance. You’re a passenger in your own life, rather than the driver.
But are you ever really in control? And if so, what’s the nature of that control?
The belief that you don’t genuinely have control over your own life is called determinism. Determinists say that if we actually had sufficient knowledge, we would be able to predict a person’s every thought and action. Human beings, on this view, are nothing more than complicated rocks rolling down a hill — only the force moving us along isn’t gravity, but nature and nurture, our genes and our upbringing.
Yes, they’ll say, it feels as though you make choices. If feels as though you could have done this when instead you did that. But that choice is an illusion. Here’s how philosopher Sam Harris puts it:
Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.
The determinists are wrong. You do make choices. You do this when you could have done that. Stalin was evil because he enslaved and murdered millions of people when he could have chosen not to be a ruthless killer. Frederick Douglass was admirable because he fought for the liberation of blacks when he could have chosen to remain silent. And you? You are who you are because of the choices you’ve made — and you’ll become who you’ll become through the choices you make in the future.
That, anyway, is my conclusion. But why think it’s true?
The challenge of free will
Though common sense tells us we make choices, when we probe into the nature of choice, we run into difficulties. Take a familiar choice. It’s Thursday night and you sit down to watch Netflix. You spend a few hours scrolling through your options and then you settle on Stranger Things. At one level it feels like you made that choice. But if someone asked you why you chose it, what would you answer?
One answer might be, “For no reason at all.” But that doesn’t sound like control. That sounds like being out of control. That sounds like your so-called choices are as random as a card shuffle. If free will means “I do random stuff for random reasons,” then what good is free will?
Another answer might be, “Because Stranger Things is my favorite show.” But that doesn’t sound like control. That sounds like your so-called choices are determined by your values and preferences. You don’t control your life. You just do what you want — and you don’t have control over what you want.
So on the one hand it feels like we make choices. But, on the other hand, when we try to articulate the source and nature of choosing, we come up empty. We seem trapped between determinism and indeterminism, with no space left for free will.
The problem is, we’re looking in the wrong place. Choosing what show to watch, or what meal to eat, or what brand of shampoo to buy — these are choices between content. They do involve real acts of choice. But to see that, we have to go deeper: we have to identify the basic choice, our locus of control. And that turns out not to be a choice about content: it’s a choice about process. Our primary choice has to do, not with what but how.
It’s an issue of mental management.
To think or not to think…that is the question
Have you ever been reading a textbook for class only to find your mind drifting off? Your eyes kept following the words on the page, but none of it registered? What did you do? You probably stopped yourself and made a deliberate effort to focus on the words and their meaning. Maybe you decided to go more slowly over the material, looking up definitions of unfamiliar words, underlining key passages, jotting down questions to ask your professor.
That’s what I mean by mental management. It’s your ability to raise your level of awareness and regulate how your mind functions. Your default mental state is one of drift. It’s the state of your mind when you were looking at the words on the page of the textbook, but not registering their meaning. When you’re drifting, you’re still seeing things, hearing things, and even having sub-verbal conversations with yourself. But you’re mentally passive. As when your eyes are out of focus, the world is there but it’s blurry.
Your basic choice, the root of your free will, is your ability to take control of your mind and raise your level of awareness — to move from a passive state of drift to a state of purposeful alertness. Free will is your freedom to think — or not.
Thinking [writes Ayn Rand] is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality — or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.
Self-control is really mind control. It’s your ability to regulate the functioning of our mind. You can set your mind to the task of understanding reality — or you can be pulled along by your subconscious. When you do take control of your mind, you’re aware that you chose to do it — it’s something you made happen, not something that happened to you. Nothing compelled you to raise your level of awareness.
The clearest indication of this is effort. It takes effort to raise your level of awareness. It takes effort to pay attention. It takes effort to manage your mental processes. And inherent in the exertion of effort is the awareness: “I didn’t have to expend that effort.” Some energy you expend effortlessly. Think of when you flinch as a bug flies toward your eyes. Your automatic actions — your deterministic actions — don’t involve effort. Effort is what’s required to perform volitional processes. It is the self-evident insignia of the fact that you do have free will.
But isn’t this conception of free will vulnerable to the same objections I raised earlier to choosing to watch Stranger Things? It’s not.
The choice to focus isn’t random. You don’t mysteriously find yourself in focus. You’re aware that it came about through a deliberate act of will: you exerted the effort required to increase your level of awareness. Nor is focus a result of passively following your desires. It’s true that in some sense you desired to know what was going on in reality, and that you adopted focus as a means to that end. But the value of knowing what’s going on in reality is omnipresent: that’s why being out of control is so frightening. Implicit in every waking moment is the knowledge that awareness is better than confusion. But this knowledge has no causal efficacy apart from your choice to act on it. Your sense that it would be good to know what’s going on doesn’t compel you to exert the effort to know what’s going on. That remains a sovereign choice.
The choice to focus is your primary choice. But it’s not your only choice.
If you continue to drift passively, then you don’t face any further choices. Your actions will be determined — they’ll be determined by your emotions and whatever mental content comes up from your subconscious. Maybe you’ve had the experience of drinking a few too many. You’re still walking around and speaking, but when you look back the next day you think: “I wasn’t in charge last night.” The reason people make dumb decisions when they’re drunk isn’t only because their inhibitions are lowered. It’s because, once they reach a certain point of intoxication, they’re not making decisions. The less cognitive control you exercise, the more your emotions are in charge.
But if you are mentally alert, if you take control over your mental operations, then you face all sorts of further choices about how to think and how to act. Go back to our textbook example. If you’re passively reading your textbook, then whatever content drifts through your mind is pure accident. But once you take charge, you face further decisions.
Should I read this more slowly? Should I go back and re-read earlier material that might clarify this material? Should I set the textbook aside and look at my class notes, or watch a YouTube video on the topic, or email my professor? Should I take a nap so I can revisit this material fresh? Which strategy will be most effective for learning the material?
Each of these decision points gives rise to further decisions. You decide to read the text more slowly and come upon a statement: “The Industrial Revolution was a time of poverty and worker exploitation.” You don’t accept the statement and move on. You start asking probing questions to connect the claim to other things you know in order to judge it.
Did the Industrial Revolution create poverty? Or did it inherit poverty? What does it mean to say workers were exploited? If they were being exploited, why did people keep moving from farms to factories? From countries that weren’t industrializing to countries that were?
Suddenly, you feel a sense of discomfort. You’ve always considered yourself a progressive and all your friends are progressive. You sense that continuing this train of thought could lead you to challenge your evaluation of capitalism and put you in conflict with your professor and your peers. You decide: I want to know what’s true, come what may. You press forward with more questions, following reason wherever it leads.
Your basic choice is to think or not. If you choose to think, you face further choices about how to implement that resolve: what to think about, how to think about it, what actions to take. All of these choices have reasons, but you select the reasons that will govern you. You are a self-programmer.
I’ve said that your basic choice is to raise your level of awareness or not. But there is a third basic alternative open to you: not effortful awareness but effortful blindness. You can purposefully turn away from reality and try to cloud your own vision. This is what Rand called evasion:
the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think — not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment — on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it.
Awareness as such is experienced as a positive. But sometimes when confronted with unpleasant or painful facts, people choose not to confront them. Your romantic partner tells you you’re being cold and aloof, your boss criticizes your sloppy work, you feel a pain in your chest and worry that it might be a sign of a heart attack. In each case, you can seek to understand the truth — or you can struggle not to know the truth. You can give in to fear, guilt, discomfort, or sheer laziness and work to push the facts out of your mind.
Typically, evasion works by means of rationalizations — false reasons and spurious justifications people use to conceal from themselves and others that they’re evading. “I’ve just been tired,” you tell your partner, even though you dimly sense the truth: you’re unhappy in the marriage. “I got sidetracked by other assignments,” you tell the boss, trying not to think of the hours you’ve frittered away on social media. “That’s probably just acid reflux,” you tell yourself, trying to erase the terror that something more serious is going on.
But evasion, like focus, is a choice. In the very act of exercising effort not to know, you grasp that you could exercise the effort to know. It’s no accident that 12 Step recovery programs start by demanding that people acknowledge they have a problem. Addictions thrive off of rationalizations and evasions. You cannot act self-destructively with your eyes open. You have to actively work not to see into the future, not to weigh the consequences of your actions, not to acknowledge the guilt, shame, and disappointment that’s driving you to play Russian Roulette with your life. Change is only possible once you make a choice. Not, in the first instance, a choice to alter your future behavior — but the choice to face the truth about where you are today.
One of the most prominent rationalizations people use to evade reality is determinism. Criminals love to say, “I couldn’t help it.” They talk about their tough upbringing. They talk about their temper. They talk about their dire financial situation. In one way or another, they argue: don’t blame me, I didn’t choose to rob, rape, and kill.
One thing that makes the determinist rationalization so compelling is that, insofar as you don’t think, you are controlled by mysterious inner and outer forces. The determinist feels that determinism is true because, in a sense, he is not self-made. His motives and the source of his desires are a mystery. In a deeper sense, however, he is self-made. He elected to be controlled by something other than his own will. The truth he cannot escape is: he could have done otherwise.
What do we introspect?
Sam Harris would deny all of this. He goes further than other determinists. They argue that when you experience yourself making choices, the sense that you are doing so freely is an illusion. Harris argues that you don’t actually experience yourself making choices.
[T]he deeper truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective facts about us — and introspection soon proves as hostile to the idea as the laws of physics are. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused, or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference) and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. A moment or two of serious scrutiny, and you might observe that you no more decide the next thought you think than the next thought I write.
Harris acknowledges that some states of consciousness “seem self-generated, deliberative, and subject to our will.” If you hear a leaf blower outside your window, that’s a state of awareness that arises automatically — yet when you try to ignore the noise and direct your attention somewhere else, that feels very different from passively hearing a sound. It feels like you’re deciding to do something. In reality, it’s just that: a feeling. “The phrase ‘free will’ describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness.” Harris asks us to look closer.
When you seemingly choose to try to ignore the sound of leaf blower, what’s actually happening? In Harris’s view, your subconscious is sending up a thought: “Hey, ignore that leaf blower and focus on your writing!” Did you choose that thought? No, it just popped into your conscious mind. And why did you listen to the thought? Say, because your subconscious sent up another thought, “You’ll get fired if you don’t finish this article!” But you didn’t choose that thought either. The ultimate reason for any of your decisions is “utterly mysterious” to you.
You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it — when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill — the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past.
Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior — but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter — and there are paths toward making wiser ones — but I cannot choose what I choose. And if it ever appears that I do — for instance, after going back and forth between two options — I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.
But Harris’s whole description of what it’s like to think flies in the face of what we actually introspect. In Harris’s view, if you look closely at your mental life, you’ll see that your conscious mind is being controlled by thoughts coming from an invisible unconscious. “If you pay attention to your inner life, you will see that the emergence of choices, efforts, and intentions is a fundamentally mysterious process.”
But that’s a bald assertion that in no one way describes what you’re actually aware of when you think. What you’re actually aware of is directing and controlling your thought process. Yes, thinking involves an interaction between your conscious mind and your subconscious. But it’s your conscious mind that sets your intentions and passes verdicts on what your subconscious feeds you.
When you choose to focus on your writing and not the sound of the leaf blower, it’s not some thought from your subconscious that makes you focus on your work — it’s your decision. Can you give reasons for that decision? Yes. But you had to endorse those reasons and carry them out in action. And when it comes to the fundamental choice, the choice to engage in reasoning, there is no prior cause that could constitute a mysterious force directing your choice: there is only the sheer act of you willing your mind to pay attention and engage in mental management. Far from your thought processes being passive, you’re aware of being in the driver seat — and you’re aware that you put yourself in the driver’s seat.
Free will and causality
The fact that you control your thought processes is self-evident. You can directly introspect it. And yet many people — and most professional intellectuals — deny it. Why?
Usually it’s because they think there’s a conflict between free will and cause and effect. Harris, for example, argues that “events have causes. Everything that arises seems to be born into existence by some previous state of the universe.” And that includes consciousness. “[A]ll of our conscious experiences — our thoughts, intentions, desires, and the actions and choices that result from them — are caused by events that are not conscious and which we did not bring into being.” He goes on:
You didn’t pick your parents, you didn’t pick your genes therefore, and you didn’t pick the environment into which you were born, and yet the totality of these facts determines who you are in each moment and what you do in the next. And even if you think you have an immaterial soul that somehow animates this machinery, you didn’t pick your soul. The next thing you think and do can only emerge from this totality of prior causes, and it can only emerge in one of two ways: lawfully, that is deterministically, like one domino just getting knocked over by another — or randomly.
Well, yes: if the law of causality means that events are necessitated by previous events, then there’s no room for free will. But that’s just one perspective on what causality is. Harris’s argument amounts to: “If we assume that the only alternatives are deterministic causation or randomness, then human beings don’t have free will.” It assumes free will out of existence.
If we actually look at where our concept of causality comes from, however, it doesn’t come from seeing events following inexorably from previous events. It comes from grasping a relationship between an entity and its actions. The world is causal, not because events necessitate other events, but because the things in the world act according to their identities. Our walking is caused by the movement of our legs. A bird’s flying is caused by the flapping of its wings. A ball’s rolling is caused by the nature of the ball as a solid, spherical object.
A thing’s nature determines how it can act. And that’s as true of human beings as it is of rocks. But our distinctive form of action is choosing — selecting among alternatives. You have no choice about the need to choose to raise your level of awareness or not — that is inherent in the identity of your mind — but what you choose is up to you. Your actions are caused — but they are self-caused.
Is that a different form of causality than we see in inanimate objects? Absolutely. But so what? Quantum mechanics suggests that subatomic causality works differently than the familiar mechanistic causality we find among rocks and plants. Why would we think that the phenomenon of consciousness has to operate in the same manner as the non-conscious world?
One reason you might think that is because the mind is dependent on the brain: it has a material source and therefore must obey the deterministic causal laws matter is subject to. But that doesn’t follow. As neuroscientist Kevin J. Mitchell notes, “Thoughts and feelings and choices are mediated by the physical influx of molecules in the brain, but this does not mean they can be reduced to it. They are emergent phenomena with causal powers in and of themselves.” The mind depends on the brain, but it isn’t identical with the brain.
Harris and other determinists offer a false choice: determinism or randomness. But that leaves out a third alternative: self-causation. You are the cause of your choices. Free will, on this view, doesn’t conflict with the law of causality — it is a type of causality.
Free will and neuroscience
Determinists will sometimes trot out research from neuroscience to undermine the case for free will. Harris, for example, writes:
The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels he has decided to move. Another lab extended this work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): Subjects were asked to press one of two buttons while watching a “clock” composed of a random sequence of letters appearing on a screen. They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it.
Science, in short, has shown that we think we’re making decisions, but in reality our brain has already made the decision for us. “These findings,” Harris concludes, “are difficult to reconcile with the sense that we are the conscious authors of our actions.”
No, they’re not. The fact that brain activity precedes a conscious choice doesn’t show this activity causes the conscious choice. This brain activity could reflect the brain gearing up for a decision yet to be made by the mind. (In fact, Libet found that after the brain seemed to show test subjects had made the decision to move, they could inhibit that decision — which suggests that the brain activity didn’t reflect a decision at all.)
More important, all of these experiments assess random, arbitrary, meaningless decisions. But that is not what free will is. Free will isn’t your power to press a random button at a random time. It is perfectly conceivable that when we set our mind to that sort of task, we wait for some random signal from our brain. Free will is our power to think — to engage in active mental management. None of these experiments are relevant that activity.
Free will, genes, and environment
One indication of just how prevalent determinism is comes in the very concept of the “nature/nurture” debate. Scientists go back and forth over whether we’re determined mostly by innate factors or environmental factors, with no one asking: are we determined by anything?
Psychologist Eric Turkheimer surveyed the scientific literature and found that about 40–50% of the variance in character traits scientists had studied could be attributed to heredity, while a tiny sliver more could be attributed to family upbringing. Somewhere between 40 and 60% couldn’t be explained by either. Even if we take the scientific literature at face value, there’s nothing remotely resembling evidence that human behavior is determined.
And in fact it’s not even obvious that what scientists are measuring when making claims about nature versus nurture are the kinds of things we have in mind when thinking about free will. For example, intelligence could theoretically be fully determined by nature, nurture, or some combination. That would say nothing about how a given individual exercises their cognitive ability.
Personality traits — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — are more complicated. These traits are supposed to measure habitual patterns of behavior, thought, and emotion, and so cover (to some extent) the kinds of activities where free will is operative. The strong evidence these traits are partly heritable does pose a challenge. But the challenge is not to the existence of free will. Instead, the challenge is to explain how biology can influence volitional thoughts and behaviors, as well as emotions.
Mitchell argues that biology creates “predispositions that make us more likely to act in certain ways in certain situations, but that doesn’t mean that on any given instance we have to act like that. We still have free will, just not in the sense that we can choose to do any random thing at any given moment.” What Mitchell seems to have in mind is that our circuits for neuromodulators like dopamine and serotonin “work differently in each of us, thus influencing the habitual behavioral strategies we each tend to develop.” To oversimplify, certain kinds of actions are easier or more rewarding for some people than for others, and so we tend to develop different habits. To take an analogy, a person who takes opioids and doesn’t experience the typical euphoric sensation is probably not going to become addicted, whereas the person for whom the euphoric rush is incredibly strong will have to exercise more self-control to keep from getting hooked.
I find Mitchell’s account plausible, but for our purposes we can set the whole issue to the side. The point is that when it comes to your thoughts and actions, you are never determined by factors outside of your control, even if you are influenced by them. And there is nothing to suggest that your basic choice — to seize control of the reins of your mind and raise your level of awareness — is subject to such predispositions.
What, then, about environmental influences? Your environment can obviously have an impact on what you think about. But it can also make thinking easier or harder. Your environment can encourage independence, it can provide opportunities for a solid education — or it can preach (and demand) obedience to authority and replace education with indoctrination. But aside from extreme cases, such as horrible instances of child abuse, what your environment cannot do is stop you from thinking. It cannot take away your ability to think, to judge, to question (nor can it compel you to think, judge, or question).
When I was in college, I remember talking to friends whose parents smoked cigarettes. And I can think of half-a-dozen times when my friends said, “I smoke because my parents smoke.” But I can also think of half-a-dozen times when my friends said, “I don’t smoke because my parents smoke.” It wasn’t the actions of their parents that determined their behavior — it was what they concluded about their parents’ actions that determined their behavior. Their environments gave them the material for decision-making — their minds used that material to reach an independent judgment.
What is true is that to the extent you don’t choose to think, you will be a product of your environment. That’s why we do see a correlation between a person’s environment and his ideas. It’s why we find most Catholics had Catholic parents and most Muslims had Muslim parents. It’s not that their environment determined their ideas — it’s that, on some important issues, many people don’t think. And if you don’t think, you usually conform.
Environment matters. But the key to a person’s soul is not the environment they are raised in, but how they characteristically choose to use their mind.
You have free will. It is not some mystical, anti-science force but your power to control the functioning of your mind. Determinism poses as pro-science. In reality, it is groundless.
You are in control.
Want more? Sign up for my newsletter.
Follow me on Twitter: @donswriting
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 5.
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 6
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 31
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 32
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 43
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 39
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 37
. Kevin J. Mitchell, Innate, 265.
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 8–9.
. Sam Harris, Free Will, 9
. Alfred R. Mele, Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will
. Kevin J. Mitchell, Innate, 265–266
. Kevin J. Mitchell, Innate, 112.