Free Will: A Kind of Will

There is nothing supernatural about free will, nothing about it that denies laws of science. To understand it, keep these principles in mind.

You are more like a dog than you are like a rock.

Do not think like this: There are rocks, and their behavior is completely determined by laws of nature. And then there is me. Unless I am exempt from the laws of nature, my actions too must be determined just like the rock’s is, and then I don’t have free will. So either I am determined just like a rock is or there is something supernatural or non-physical about free will.

Photo of rocks

© Jeannette S. -

Photo of ivy leaves

© Rosmarie Voegtli -

Photo of squirrel

© Amit Patel -

Photo of chimpanzee

© Bald Wonder -

Photo of dog

© Martin Astley -

There is nothing supernatural about free will or about any other aspect of life. But such a distinctly human faculty as free will can be very difficult to understand without considering other living organisms. Don’t focus on what distinguishes you from a rock. Think about what distinguishes you from a very intelligent animal. Compare organisms with will in general and those with free will.

You are more like a dog or a dolphin or a chimpanzee than you are like a rock. This is important. Do not forget it.

Pseudo-random can be as good as random.

For purposes of a gamble, it does not matter whether the physics of the coin toss fully determines whether the coin will land heads or tails.

For understanding free will, it does not matter whether there is atomic quantum uncertainty or some Lucretian swerve inherent in the universe or neither (or if Harry Binswanger’s promising proposal about randomness is right). The relevant uncertainty in an organism’s life is simply the unknown. What matters is the organism’s inability to respond to everything that was, is, and will be.

Just as you don’t know how the coin will land, you can’t know all the details about everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. That’s the crucial bit.

If you knew everything, you wouldn’t have free will.

Do not think like this: If I had a super-awesome computer by which I could know the position, trajectory, and chemical composition of every particle in the universe, then I could predict everything that would happen next, and so everything is determined, and so there is no free will.

If you could know everything, you wouldn’t have free will. But then what you had wouldn’t be knowledge. Knowing is by nature limited.

Theologians face this problem. If God is omniscient, does He have free will? They get backed into answering, “Well, um, he does, sort of. But it’s a special kind of free will unlike anything that would normally go by the name.” In other words, “No, of course He doesn’t.”

If you were God, or Laplace’s demon, you would know the position, trajectory, and chemical composition of every particle in the universe—and you would not have free will. But you aren’t—and you do.

Life is like playing pinball.

The reward for a well-played game of pinball is that you get to play again. The main goal of a living organism is to go on living. An organism’s life is—if all is going well—a self-perpetuating process.

This is possible because a biological organism is an active, not a passive, system. What an organism does in one instant depends on what just happened externally, but also on what the organism itself just did. The organism, in other words, is a closed-loop feedback system with positive reinforcement. When external factors overwhelm the internal reinforcement, the organism dies.

Living organisms are very robust feedback systems.

Nowadays engineers can design self-contained feedback systems with behaviors that are, within limits, insensitive to various external factors. After such a system is set in motion, its behavior becomes—again within limits—self-determined. No laws of chemistry, mathematics, or physics get violated, but applying mechanistic concepts of cause and effect to them can be quite tricky, even counter-intuitive.*

Mother Nature and Father Evolution are very good engineers. We must recognize that living organisms are very robust feedback systems. They are not like the balls in that pinball game.

You have the same sort of neural machinery that other intelligent mammals do—and then some.

Humans inherit from their mammalian heritage a huge and hugely complex neurological system. Whatever our volitional capabilities are, they add to, depend on, and use that inherited system; they don’t replace it. Whatever neural machinery lets a dog identify a ball, determine that the ball would be fun to chase, and then move muscles to chase that ball is machinery you have too. Whatever cognitive capabilities you have supplement rather than replace neurological machinery in other intelligent species.

Of course, how we can integrate tactile and visual sensations and become aware of a ball as a three-dimensional object in space is a very interesting problem. But it’s not a philosophical problem. It’s a problem for mammalian biology, physiology, and neuroscience. For that is something dogs, cats, dolphins, and chimps can all do. However they do it is how we do it. Similarly, however they can project a feeling of pleasure, move muscles accordingly, and thus interact with the ball is how we do it too.

Ayn Rand has an insightful formulation that is relevant here: “Consciousness is identification.” In whatever way they can, all conscious beings—not just humans—identify. They also evaluate. The dog identifies the ball, estimates the value of pursuing it, relative to other possible actions, and moves its muscles accordingly.

Diagram of mammal vs human consciousness

: ‘Human-vs-animal-consciousness’

Think of it this way: You do not tell your muscles to move so as to toss the ball; you tell your subconscious that you think tossing the ball would make you happy and your subconscious takes it from there, doing the same sort of thing a chimp does once it determines that tossing the ball would bring it pleasure.

Of course your life is determined.

Your life is determined by the actions you take, just as with any living organism. If an organism is not controlling its own actions, if its condition is determined only by external factors, it dies.

You determine that it would best if you go to the store. So you go to the store. The same with dogs and dolphins. The dog determines that it would be best to come when the dinner bell rings. So it does. How various species determine what to do varies, and some are better at it than others. But you and dogs are the same on this:

Every organism does what it determines is best to do.

Evolution has left different species with different mechanisms for determining what is best to do. Some of these mechanisms are more powerful than others.

In plants, chemicals that fuel growth are produced more in the areas better lit. A virtuous cycle ensues, and the plant grows toward the light.

Conscious beings can determine their response to a much wider range of external factors than plants can. But with that capability comes a challenge: how to produce a cycle that is actually virtuous, that is, how to select short-term actions that have good long-term results.

Animals use pleasure and pain to determine what is best.

The plant’s photosynthesis cycle serves it well. And animals have reflex mechanisms that serve them well. But that is not enough. Animals need some way to estimate the long-term benefits and risks of short-term actions. Evolution has provided machinery for doing this: the pleasure-pain mechanism.

A feeling of pain indicates that the current situation is likely a threat to the organism’s life, pleasure an indication that the current situation is likely good for the organism. Immediate actions that increase pleasure or reduce pain are likely good for the organism and the animal acts accordingly.

If the dog determines that chasing the squirrel will generate more pleasure than chasing the stick, the neurons so fire and the dog chases the squirrel. If the dog determines that its hunger can be alleviated by rushing to the sound of a dinner bell, it will come running. An animal is simply wired to do what maximizes the highest form of pleasure available to it at the moment.

Of course, pleasure and pain are not always reliable indicators of what is good and bad. But they are the best tools the animal has.

In people, happiness serves the same purpose.

Happiness is an elevated form of pleasure, and humans are wired to pursue what they determine will generate maximum happiness.

If the person determines getting up and going to school will generate more happiness than lying in bed, the arms will remove the covers and the legs will carry the body down the steps and out the door to school.

In every instant of your life, your motor neurons are firing so as to pursue what you think will generate the most and highest happiness. That’s just the way neurological machinery works. You can pursue a more elevated and profound form of pleasure than the animal can, but the basic principle is the same: Muscles move in pursuit of maximum pleasure.

Of course, as with pleasure in other animals, your immediate judgement of what will produce maximum happiness is not a fool-proof indicator of what is actually good for you long-term. There is little the dog can do about that. But fortunately for you, you have options the dog does not. You have powerful ways to ensure that the cycle is a productive self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating one. See, in addition to below, my Ethics: The Science for Finding Happiness.

All conscious beings make selections.

A living organism is subject to multiple external forces. To the extent it can, the organism determines which of these forces prevail—whether, say, the forces that would move an animal to the right or forces that would move it to the left will prevail. The higher-level the organism the wider range of control it has. When the organism loses all such control, it dies.

Do not look for some life force that initiates physical action ex nihilo. The organism is just directing its responses to external factors. Plants do this. Animals do it. People do it.

Now sufficiently advanced organisms have a powerful mechanism for controlling responses to external forces, the mechanism of selective focus, that is, the mechanism we call consciousness. In every mentally active instant, conscious beings are directing their attention.

Photo of wolf

© Amit Patel -

Photo of cat playing with a toy

© hehaden -

Photo of dolphin

© Ross Hawkes -

Photo of child playing chess

© shoobydooby -

Photo of man thinking

© Yudis Asnar -

This point is crucial: All conscious beings make selections—not just humans. These selections amount to weightings of activity in the sensory nerves. The dog, for example, sees both the stick and the squirrel but gives more attention to the squirrel. That attention results in certain activity in the motor nerves. Result: The dog chases the squirrel.

The selections amount to identifications and evaluations. The dog identifies the squirrel and the stick and determines that chasing the squirrel is more likely to be better (for the dog) than chasing the stick would be.

(That consciousness is a process of selective focus is another idea I take from Ayn Rand.)

What makes us different: Recursion.

Cognitively, the big difference between us and other mammals is that we are capable of indefinite recursion. We can think about our own thinking, be conscious of our own consciousness, identify our own identifications, evaluate our evaluations, set a goal of setting goals. We can alter not only our body parts in response to conditions but alter how we respond. We can alter the neurological machinery that does the responding.

That is why, for example, we can conceptualize and speak. We can selectively focus on our selectively focusing. And it’s why we can then form “higher-level” concepts. We can form concepts from concepts. We can form concepts, group those into judgements, integrate those into theories. We can write words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, treatises—and treatises about treatises.

Recursion is what makes free will possible.

Free will is an acquired skill.

Higher-level species have a will, an ability to commit to complex, consciously directed, goal-oriented actions. A will is an advanced version of the identify-and-evaluate machinery. Predatory animals, for example, are strong-willed. Some breeds of dog are more strong-willed than others. Infants, even before they develop much free will, can be very strong-willed.

As you mature, you discover this will of yours. As a child, you adopt goals, you determine the actions needed to achieve those goals, and you take those actions. You do this before you pay attention to where the goals themselves come from. In your adolescence, you discover that you can choose your own goals—and you can set the standards by which you choose.

If you live around enough people who are thinking for themselves, you can get through life by mimicking them. You don’t really need to develop a robust free will. You can just react, not think much about your own thinking, take as given whatever goals come to mind. You can, in other words, never really grow up. You can live with the minimally free will of a child, take your goals, ambitions, beliefs, and values as unanalyzed givens, your feelings as moral absolutes.

(When Ayn Rand criticizes people for living a “sub-human” life, she doesn’t mean they crawl on all fours and bark. She means they never really mature.)

You live mostly on auto-pilot.

Mature humans are aware of their own awareness. We are self-aware, self-conscious. It’s this awareness of our awareness that we normally call our consciousness. The consciousness we share with animals we call our subconscious.

Diagram of mammal vs human consciousness, labeling human sub-consciousness and human self-consciousness.

It’s the subconscious that mostly runs our instant-to-instant activity—and not just, say, hand-eye or muscular coordination we develop as infants—even high-level reactions. You walk into a room and start sampling appetizers and meeting people. Only a tiny fraction of what you do gets your conscious attention. “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you.” You repeat oft-used ice-breakers without thinking, while glancing around the room and reaching for a canape. Not only tossing a ball or playing the piano, but even writing a sentence requires and uses a well-trained subconscious.

And the subconsious operates, as the consciousness in all animals, by identifying and evaluating what is best to do. When you are in a restaurant, the subconscious rules out unappealing menu items very quickly. The subconscious directs your muscles to move the fork toward the potatoes instead of toward the salad. The subconscious is also constantly producing the evaluations that you experience as emotions.

Subconscious evaluations are performed according to standards that you can affect—affect deliberately or affect by the default of mimickry. You (whether you mean to or not) train your subconscious, not just how to drive a car or what to say when asked your name but how to judge people, events, and situations. Subconscious evaluations not only produce emotions, they move your body parts. You train your subconscious to be on the lookup for things you like and how to react once they are found. As mentioned above, if you make a self-aware decision to pursue something, you don’t actually self-consciously direct every muscle; you notify your subconscious of your new priority and it takes over from there.

The sum of your subconscious evaluations constitute your character. You are mostly, day in and day out, letting your subconscious act according to your character.

A free will is a will operating on itself.

Higher-level animals have the ability to take willful action. But they have no ability to deliberately alter the standards of evaluation that direct that action. You, on the other hand, do. You can not only alter the position of your arms and legs, you can alter how your subconscious reacts to conditions it identifies. That’s all free will is—a will acting on itself.

And it’s principle of operation is the same as that of any animal’s: It operates, to the best of its ability, to maximize the highest form of pleasure possible. Your self-consciousness is you, trying your best to determine what will, in every moment and across your lifetime, make you happy.

The animal is trying its best to determine what will maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Evolution has programmed it to do this and has programmed what happens once the determination is made. It has also programmed what will generate pain and generate pleasure. Evolution has programmed you to try your best to maximize happiness and minimize suffering and has programmed what happens once the determination is made.

But you have cognitive recursion. You can determine what you determine is most likely to generate happiness and suffering. The standards of evaluation used by the animal are fixed. The ones you use are not. You develop your early ones by mimickry but then discover that you can change them. You discover that, if you exercise the effort, your will can be changed. Once you make that discovery, we say your will is “free.”

The freedom of your will is, in the short term, limited.

Your consciousness—your self-consciousness and your subconscious—are not infinitely malleable. The standards by which the part of your consciousness that directly controls bodily action judges can be changed, but only slowly. You could not right now, pick up an ax and start destroying things and killing people. You really could not. You cannot act against your own subconscious; you cannot act against your own character.

To do something like that, you’d first need to change your character, your soul, the way your subconscious works. You’d need to re-train your subconscious so that it, say, judges the actions of others as affronts, as injustices that need to be avenged.

Your subconscious is a gatekeeper between your self-aware decisions and your bodily movements. If your subconscious does not cooperate, some actions will simply be impossible for you.

And so also, on the flip side, if your character is corrupt, you need to change it before you can accomplish great things. The corruption may not have been deliberate. If you grew up mimicking bad behavior, you can have a screwed-up subconscious. If you want to straighten up and fly right, you can’t just command your body parts to behave. You need to re-train your subconscious way of thinking. You need to change your character.

Don’t say, “If free will can be physically explained, then I don’t really have choice.”

Yes, you do. Choosing is an act of determining what is best for your life. It is the exercise of an advanced cognitive (and therefore a bodily) faculty. Do not fall into the trap Objectivists attribute to Kant, that of presuming that if there is a faculty for doing something then the results don’t count, that because we have eyes, we cannot see, that because free will works a certain way, it’s not free. Don’t think that free will requires a neumonal or ghostly self. It doesn’t.

Free will is just your doing your best to determine what is best to do, with limited knowledge of what has happened, is happening, and will happen. Awareness of your free will is the awareness of your own efforts to deal with your lack of omniscience, your awareness of your own efforts to—as best you can—avoid pain, be happy, and keep the pinball game going.

Studies of free will—neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, ethics—are vast sciences. They cannot reach sound conclusions if they treat volition as something supernatural or causeless. They have to accept that free will is just a kind of will. Their task is to undersand how you differ from willful animals, not how you differ from a rock.

* “Simple causal reasoning about a feedback system is difficult because the first system influences the second and the second system influences the first, leading to a circular argument. This makes reasoning based on cause and effect tricky.” Karl Johan Aström and Richard M. Murray, Feedback Systems: An Introduction for Scientists and Engineers (Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 1.

Mark Michael Lewis
John, great article. And, I don’t think it addresses a fundamental point in the freewill debate: what it means to “choose” or to “decide” or to “select” to do something.

The argument I hear is:
– neuroscience tells us that our brain (in many cases) fires the neurons associated with making a choice several milliseconds before we experience ourselves “choosing.”
– Hence, our experience of choice is an illusion of consciousness – the brain made the choice based on deterministic factors and our experience of choosing is an effect of that deterministic process.
– in fact, our choice to pursue value X vs. Y, to choose to (or not to) gouge out our eyes, or even to focus our attention on a problem vs. defocusing our attention or our “higher concepts” (evaluations of our self-consciousness or our choice of criteria by which we will judge any aspect of our experience) – all are built on previous deterministic processes that led us to value those choices.
– Hence, the whirling of atoms, the static hardness of rocks, the biological variability of dogs, and the choices of humans are in fact part of the same deterministic system.

Do you think your essay addresses this? How might you extend it to address it?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Mark Michael Lewis
Yes, of course. The choices humans make and the selections dogs make are “part of the same deterministic system.”

Willing freely is a kind of willing, and willing is a kind of determining. When a dog turns its attention to the bone, the dog is determining that that’s the best action for it to take. When you choose to pick up a fork, you are determining that picking up the fork is the best thing for you to do. Maybe, in some or even all cases, it takes an instant for you to be aware of the determination you just made. OK. The delay does not indicate that no determination was made.

Remember, there is no separate you telling your physical body parts what to do. There are just real-time judgments of what would be best to do. The dog has little control over the standards by which those judgments are made. You have very much control over those standards. That’s what makes your will free.

(Readers of Atlas Shrugged: Note how often the narrator reports that Dagny heard herself say something or realized she had just chosen to do something. Dagny is aware of the delay Mark’s neuroscientists report.)

Stephan Kinsella
Interesting comments. However I don’t see how it really gets to the core issue–whether there is downward causation, as David Kelley discusses in some older lectures. I cannot see how downward causation is physically possible. According to some free will proponents, there must be downward causation (the brain affects the actions of its constituent particles) for there to be “genuine” free will. It seems to me the only promising approach is a type of dualism as Mises advocated–in which we distinguish conceptually between person and body, between mind and brain, between action and behavior–to develop a type of “compatibilism.” But it’s a difficult issue.

Josh, reply to Stephan Kinsella
You should pick up “The Neural Basis of Free Will.” It’s not perfect, but it’s the best book I’ve read that deals with the evidence for downward causation.

Stephan Kinsella, reply to Josh
I cannot even imagine how evidence could prove downward causation is possible. But I may take a look. Thanks.

Douglas B. Rasmussen
John, I like this very much. Would you say that a free will is not free to determine that standard by which it is judged? Doug

John P. McCaskey, reply to Douglas B. Rasmussen
Thanks Doug. “. . . by which it is judged”? Do you mean the standard by which the will is judged by other people? Or did you intend, “. . . by which some alternative is judged”?

Douglas B. Rasmussen, reply to John P. McCaskey
The latter. But, if you care to, by the former as well.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Douglas B. Rasmussen
I say a free will is indeed able to determine the standards by which it judges a situation. That is exactly what makes such a will free. The dog’s cognitive machinery can judge a situation, but the dog has little control over how that judgement is made. It can reposition its legs in pursuit of pleasure but it can’t much reposition the neurons that judge what is pleasurable. That’s what people can do.

Douglas B. Rasmussen, reply to John P. McCaskey
Yep. I think that is right. What I was asking is whether the ultimate ethical standard the free will uses in judging a situation is itself something that is constructed by the will or discovered by it?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Douglas B. Rasmussen
Ooh, for that see….

This is an interesting post, John. I’d take another look at the diagram though. The diagram illustrating the machinery of behavior depicts an open-loop controller rather than a closed-loop feedback system, which is what the text depicts as the machinery of behavior. I don’t see how to reconcile the text and diagram on this issue.

Adam Fitchett
“You could not right now, pick up an ax and start destroying things and killing people”
So you reject Sartre’s doctrine that we have ‘radical’ freedom? I must say, as a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I am constantly assaulted by the awareness of my own radical freedom. It’s terrifying. When standing by a cliff edge, you think: “I could throw myself off. I could do it right now. I don’t want to, but I could. All it would take is one step. Just one step. And I could do it. That’s all it is” etc. Or, when holding a sharp knife, you think: “I could conceivably gouge my own eyes out right now. There’s not that much really to prevent me—other than the fact I don’t want to”

“You cannot act against your own subconscious; you cannot act against your own character”
I think you can. Part of having a free will is overcoming your instinctive impulses. I could hold my hand against a hot stove for ten seconds if I was really, really determined to rebel against my instinctive impulse to take the hand away. I could also act ‘out of character’ if I wanted. That is after all where the phrase ‘out of character’ comes from. I’ve cultivated myself into an honest person, but I bet I could force myself to lie to everyone if I really wanted to.

“In every instant of your life, your motor neurons are firing so as to pursue what you think will generate the most and highest happiness”
But what about ascetics and such who deliberately make themselves suffer? And don’t just tell me that suffering brings them pleasure, because that is a circular argument. I’m sure if I decided for some reason that I wanted to be unhappy, I could engineer my life to make myself as unhappy as possible.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Adam Fitchett
Well, Adam, I don’t know you, and maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s in your character that you really could gouge out your eyes. Terrifying indeed.

You really can’t act without engaging your subconscious. It controls your muscles. Now maybe your subconscious holds contradictions and inconsistencies. So you could take advantage of that, get your muscles to pick up the knife and jab yourself while also cringing. Then, yes, in a sense you could say you acted “against” your subconscious. But I’d prefer to say you acted against part of it. You got one part of your subconscious to prevail over another. You acted against one part and in cooperation with a stronger part. Net, net, I’d say, you did not act against the totality of your subconscious.

Re the ascetic: I don’t think it’s circular at all to say someone pursues physical pain in pursuit of what they consider a higher-level happiness. I deny you could “want to be unhappy.” That locution commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. “Want” depends on “happy.” See my “Ethics: The Science for Finding Happiness” ( ).

Adam Fitchett, reply to John P. McCaskey
I suppose, to a certain extent, it is a matter of what constitutes ‘me’. In other words, when I act against a part of my subconscious, who is this ‘I’ who is doing the acting? Is there only one will which chooses amongst options, or are there multiple wills that fight it out within me in order to gain supremacy? In which case, what is the role of my conscious mind in that fight?

On a side note, do you reject the idea that there is any ‘unconscious’ part to the human mind? That is, a part of the mind which has no connection to conscious will whatsoever? For example, studies have shown that cortically blind people are still capable of avoiding obstacles in their path, despite the fact that they have no conscious awareness of the presence of the obstacles.

Adam Fitchett, reply to Adam Fitchett
As a side note, I have a theory that people with Tourette’s Syndrome are like people with OCD except they have very weak freedom of the will. Sometimes thoughts pop into my head of things that I would and should never say in a million years. I don’t say them because I can will myself not to, but with Tourette’s sufferers the words just leap out of their mouths; they have no control over it.

Adam Fitchett, reply to Adam Fitchett
I imagine Tourette’s could provide some interesting insights into the neurological basis of free will. It’s almost like Tourette’s sufferers have a direct line between their subconscious and their mouth—no conscious filtration in the middle.

Mark Sulkowski
Are you a psychological egoist? You say that humans are “wired to pursue what they determine will generate maximum happiness”. Must people pursue happiness, or is that only the most likely way in which people select their actions?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Mark Sulkowski
A psychological egoist says you are wired to pursue your self-interest. I say you are wired to pursue happiness. Those aren’t the same thing. See my “Ethics: The Science for Finding Happiness” ( ) and Nathaniel Branden, “Isn’t Everyone Selfish,” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.

One thought on “Free Will: A Kind of Will

  • Jul 30, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    Again, you are incorrect about what religious people believe. Of course God has free will. He has a desire (the immortality and eternal life of man) and he fills it. Don’t overcomplicate it. To have free will is to be able to act on your own desire or desires. You and I can see. How could molecules, no matter how complicated they were, experience sight and sound. They would respond to it, but they wouldn’t feel it. I Iam aware of myself and my desires and the things and people around me and their desires around me, and that is what separates me from a dog and a rock.

    P.S. I love your articles.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Show Buttons
Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Pinterest
Hide Buttons