I was about to fall asleep just now but I got out of bed to write this and I haven’t reread it because I’m half asleep, so if I’ve made any typos or stupid things, please let me know in the comments to save me from proofing it in the morning. I’m half asleep, so publishing it now instead of waiting to go through it in the morning and publish it then, well, it seems like a good idea, for reasons that should be obvious. Good night!


Free will is a topic that I’ve thought a lot about over the course of my life. The first time I can clearly recollect thinking about free will was when I would have been about six or seven years old. I remember becoming conscious of one of the daydreams I had wandered into during class, something I would do incessantly. Then, a thought bubbled into my mind, a thought that snapped me out of the dream and dragged me back into my body: who is conscious of this dream I’m dreaming?

Who’s thinking about thinking?

When I got a little older, 8 then 9 then 10, I started playing competitive tennis. Now, for anyone who’s never played competitive tennis, you mightn’t know that it’s one of those sports that really brings out any ghosts or troubles you might be dealing with in your life. By yelling, throwing your racket against the ground or fence, swearing, grunting – you can really let out a lot of steam. The issue was, in my case at least, merely letting the steam out wasn’t enough. I had to understand why I had the steam in me to begin with.

Every day then, in the mornings when I would shower, I would spend all my time trying to figure out my feelings, by framing them in thoughts. I’d sit there, tracing over my past, cupping handfuls of water and splashing them against the wall, asking myself whether this had upset me, or if that had fatigued me. I’d go round and round in circles, replaying moments, over and over, moments that didn’t happen or that would have happened or that should have happened. Moments that looked like other moments, but that were original moments, not real. I’d get sick a lot, too. So whenever I’d get sick, or seem to be getting sick, I would question whether I had become grumpy because I was getting sick, or whether I was getting sick because I had become grumpy.

How free was my will, really? And to what extent did it affect my being, or vice versa?

My final years in high school, right before uni, were spent with my head buried in the sand. I had this thing called chronic fatigue, so I was effectively a walking zombie during those years. I’d be in class, but half asleep. I’d be at home, on the couch, falling asleep. And yet, when it came to actually sleeping – I was an insomniac. This entire period existed in a sort of fog, where I was only semi-conscious of my surroundings, where I couldn’t see more than a meter beyond myself. My thinking had been stifled and messed up, my ability to swallow information and gather it neatly depleted, and my desire to thrust myself into any sort of distance – expunged.

My point with that is merely that I had stopped consciously thinking about free will for a few years. From my senior high school years to my first year at uni, thinking, generally, wasn’t worth the effort it required. Which brings me to my second year at uni.

So I had just transferred from a commerce/law degree to an arts/law degree. This was my first arts subject, and it was on the philosophy of life (a nice, general first year tea party subject). And on my first assignment, the question that slapped me in the face with a frozen chicken was: ‘Do we have free will?’ discuss. (And keep your answer to 500 words. Easy done, ey!)

I realised in that moment that my conclusion was, ‘I don’t know.’

In that moment, I realised that my assumption that I believed we had free will was an assumption that I didn’t actually believe. I just assumed I believed it because, I guess, that’s what most people assume. Of course we have free will. I am. I am thinking. I am therefore the thinker that is thinking. And the thoughts I’m thinking are my thoughts, thoughts I have created, thoughts that I have thought. They are mine. The thinker’s thoughts. I am. I am thinking. I am the thinker.

Yes. Sure. But that doesn’t address whether or not you have free will. Because it doesn’t address the question, ‘Who are you?’

If I am but the mere total of me, meaning that the total of my body and mind are what make me me, then I am merely the product of this body I’ve inhabited. I am not just this body, but this body is in fact me. And they are different things.

Which brings me to my penis analogy.

If I am aroused, I will start desiring sex in one form or another. I might start thinking about naked women, or if I’m in bed I might roll over and touch my partner’s hair and do something weird and creepy like poke her in the back with my “arousal.” The thing is, however, that these thoughts will filter through my awareness before the awareness that I’m aroused filters through. I will only realise that I’ve an erection after I’ve started thinking about naked women.

This means, of course, that these thoughts I thought I was having, were only there because of something that my body was doing.

To put this into context, let’s imagine you’re out in public. You’re hungry and you want a burger. You find a place and you line up. Finally you get to the front of the line. When you get there, you suddenly feel angry and frustrated. The lady serving you looks like she’s got an attitude, and she’s moving too damn slow. You’re getting hot and flustered. You can see her glaring at you. She doesn’t look like a nice person and now a big part of you just wants to leave so you don’t have to keep looking at her. You need to get away from this witch.

When you walk away you start thinking all these horrible things about the lady at the counter. She’s a big fat slob. She’s dumb. Uneducated. Probably has kids whom she yells at for watching too much TV, while she herself watches TV. Her husband’s just as big a dick as her and you hope they both choke on a pretzel, just a little, enough so that they have to spit it out at their stupid TV.

You keep replaying these same scenarios over and over, only further convincing yourself of this lady’s malevolence, nefariousness, general wickedness.

Here’s the kicker though.

All the while, you remain completely oblivious to the fact that when you were talking to the poor lady taking your order, some-biochemical-thing inside your body misfired, causing your serotonin and oxytocin levels to momentarily plummet. You were oblivious to the bad smell wafting through the room, a smell you didn’t become conscious of. Oblivious to that the lady next to you hit you with her elbow when she reached for her bag. Oblivious to the fact you saw a sign with a number that reminded you of a bill you’ve got due next week. Which reminded you that your car registration is due in a month. Which reminded you – all subconsciously still, remember – of all the other money problems you have, and the fact that you’re a bit paranoid, for no good reason, about getting laid off at your job.

That freedom of will you thought was so definitely yours is shaped by forces inside and outside you, forces that you have no control over, forces that happen in spite of you. When we talk about free will, to me it’s more accurate to talk about conscious reflection, and to what extent that plays a part in our lives. We can then talk about what that conscious reflection implies? And to what extent we can claim ownership over the point that we, some thing inside us, is able to consciously reflect. For isn’t that, too – the reflection as well as the desire to reflect – driven by forces without “our” control? Aren’t our reflections reflecting because, like in the scenario above, some bad but much under-the-radar smell is angering our nostrils, because a muscle in our butt spasmed, because some chemical inside us fired, because it was 3pm and at 3pm we eat lunch at our desk and stare out the window and so remind ourselves that some part of us yearns for a better life?

I can’t help but feel that I do have free will.

And that will do.

Humans are weird

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Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Modern theories of the mind seem to indicate that much of the time the conscious mind’s role is not to make decisions, but rather to observe the unconscious decisions that are made, and to make sense of what is happening. The “I” is more of a passenger (or perhaps a back-seat driver) than actual driver. Think how hard it would be to survive from second to second if “we” had to make every executive decision.

    What does this mean for free will? Well, it’s not someone else making these decisions, it’s a part of your brain. But perhaps it’s not the part you thought it was. If you think of the brain as a community, with the “I” part as a kind of fly-on-the-wall, perhaps that is close to how things work.

    Certainly the idea of a little homunculus sitting inside the brain, pulling levers, isn’t how we are at all.

    Reply
    • The fly on the wall observer is pretty much it, I’d say. But the I behind my brain isn’t just a part of my brain, it’s all of me, but I am not responsible for any of it. This self that society spends so much time trying to fill with steam, or esteem, doesn’t live up to much scrutiny. It’s just a pesky fly on the wall.

      Reply
  2. I heard a podcast about brain tumors (Radio Lab, I think) that told the story of a man, a pianist and all around good guy, who had a brain tumor removed. After the surgery he changed. He began overeating, and watching kid porn on-line. He got busted for the porn. His surgeon testified on his behalf, saying that the operation had messed up his impulse control center.
    There were other stories too of people whose strange behavior was due to a tumor, like the lady who couldn’t look at a safety pin without having an orgasm.
    People don’t choose to have tumors or wacky brain chemistry or emotional issues stemming from childhood abuse- all that kind of stuff that affects our decision making. Free will is limited.

    Reply
    • Sam Harris has a few good talks on this. He talks about this exact sort of scenario, but then goes as far as saying that this sort of situation is how we should think about free will. Someone’s neurological/cultural/genetic makeup acts just the same as a brain tumor, in terms of regulating our actions. It’s decent thinking juice.

      Reply
  3. I recently had a similar discussion with my roommate, and we came to the conclusion that our free will was greatly dependent on our intelligence. Our reasoning is that increased levels of intelligence allow us to better organize our needs and desires and the fulfillment thereof. We can only neglect these needs and desires at the peril of our physical and mental health. But we also can’t choose our initial degree of intelligence, as we can’t decide who we will be before we are born. That is, unless the Hindi are right…

    Reply
    • Ah, but if you didn’t freely choose your level of intelligence, then how can a higher level of intelligence be linked to free will? It’s still only a perception of free will, albeit a much more complex and dynamic one.

      LOL—annnnnd I just finished reading your comment as I finished typing that sentence. Exactly. They very well might be. Recycled energy recycled. Shrugs. I don’t have a fucking clue re what I actually think.

      Reply
      • That’s ok 🙂 we will ever be left to wonder. Really, it’s absurd, how these questions will eternally elude us, but we just can’t stop fighting over the answers. No intelligence gatherer could devise torture as cruel as that

        Reply

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