Here we have Truman.
His kind boss Lawrence has just given him the chance at a lucrative account in Wells
Unfortunately, Truman never meets the client because he decides not to board the ferry
so he never makes it to Wells Park.
So, Did Truman have free will in this situation?
What I mean by free will is, were his actions the result of conscious thoughts and intentions
that he decided upon?
And, Could he choose to do something different if we rewound the universe back to the moment
before he walked away from the ferry?
The first part of this video will address this question: “do we have free will?”
by looking at what parts of the mind we have control over.
The second part will address why acknowledging a lack of free will could actually give you
more control over your life.
Back to Truman.
You might say I’ve set the bar too high, because the memory of having lost his father
in a boating accident was too traumatic of an experience for Truman to be able to freely
control his response.
So, on that note, let’s think about some situations where we would say someone wasn’t
acting “of their own free will.”
Let’s say for example, you introduce your friend Tom to your girlfriend and he’s excessively
flirtatious with her, making you and your girlfriend uncomfortable.
You might be pissed but, you then remember Tom just had a frontal lobotomy.
You also know that the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe of the brain facilitates
inhibiting inappropriate behavior.
With this in mind, you’re probably more likely to forgive him, ...but you’ll keep
him away from your girlfriend.
Actually, A man named Phineas Gage became very famous after receiving an unrequested
frontal lobotomy when, on September 13th 1848, an explosion sent a huge iron rod through
the front part of his skull.
He survived, but he became uncharacteristically brash and sometimes inappropriately sexual.
I think most would agree that in this case, Gage wasn’t choosing to be a jerk of his
own free will.
So, Let’s categorize this as free will inhibition level 5.
Another example of level 5 inhibition would be a brain tumor.
One example is the mass murderer Charles Witman.
On August 1st, 1966, Witman murdered 16 people and, in something like a suicide note he left,
he said: “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man.
However, lately I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”
In the note, he even requested for an autopsy to be done on himself to find out if there
was a biological reason for his drastic changes.
The Autopsy was done on August 2nd, and a “pecan-sized” brain tumor was found.
There’s even a case in which a 40-year old man, starting around the year 2000, suddenly
developed a disturbing interest in children.
The day before he was about to go to jail for being guilty of child mole station, he
went to the hospital complaining of a massive headache and an egg sized tumor was found
in his brain.
The tumor was removed and his inappropriate urges and behavior disappeared.
Then, about a year later the tumor came back, and so did the inappropriate urges.
The tumor was removed again and the urges disappeared again.
In situations like this where the actual physical integrity of the brain is compromised, it’s
safe to say that free will is greatly inhibited.
If these examples represent level 5 inhibition, then level 4 could be something like being
addicted to drugs, because the user develops specific brain changes that result in uncontrollable
cravings and less ability to inhibit impulsive behavior.
Another example of level 4 inhibition might be someone with Parkinson’s disease.
Of course the disease itself means the person has less freedom in their physical movements,
but the incidence of pathological gambling is significantly higher in Parkinson’s patients,
thanks to their dopamine agonist medication.
Next, level 3 free will inhibition could be being drunk or going without sleep for a very
Level 2 might even include something seemingly minor like just being hungry.
Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School in New York and colleagues analysed over a
thousand parole hearings for four Israeli prisons, made over a 10 month period.
They found that if the judge had eaten recently, prisoners had a 65% chance of being paroled.
But The longer the judges went without food, the lower this percentage dropped, and it
would often decline to prisoners having an almost 0% chance of getting paroled.
After some food during lunch break however, the percentage shot back up to 65%.
So Then, what would the lowest level of free will inhibition look like?
It might just be the base programming of our brains.
Dan Ariely, professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and author of
“Predictably Irrational,” points out that people’s decisions can be swayed in predictable
ways simply by presenting the information differently.
For example, people were asked “Who’s more attractive, Tom or Jerry?”
If there was a clone of Jerry that was slightly uglier, normal Jerry was the most attractive
of the three.
If there was an ugly clone of Tom, then Tom was most attractive.
People tend pick the choice whose value is easiest to calculate.
It’s hard to say if Tom is better than Jerry, but Tom is surely better than his ugly clone.
This is known as the decoy effect and it’s a great way to get people to buy stuff.
Do you want a small popcorn for 3 dolalrs, a medium popcorn for $6.50, or a large for
I don’t know if the small is a better value than the medium, but the large is clearly
better than the medium so I’ll get that.
This shows up in other, quite important situations like here, Ariely is showing the drastic difference
between countries’ organ donation rates.
Why are the countries on the left’s rates so low compared to those on the right?
It’s not the culture, but the form at the DMV.
The form for the countries with the low donation rate says "Check the box below if you want
to participate in the organ donor program."
the form for countries with high donation rate says “Check the box below if you don’t
want to participate in the organ donor program."
When faced with a difficult decision, the easier decision is to take no action and leave
the box unchecked.
Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman says in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” that
we have two systems of thinking.
System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary
System 2 “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it… [and is]
often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”
Some examples of System 1 are activities like -Orienting to the source of a sudden sound
-Making a “disgust face” when shown a horrible picture, and
-Reading words on large billboards (Again, automatic things)
System 2 on the other hand includes activities like
-Assessing whether a product is worth paying more for or not
-Focusing on the voice of a particular person in a noisy room, and
-Looking for a woman with white hair.
(These are more deliberate)
Here’s an example: Mary’s Mom has four daughters, April, May, June and ... If you
said July, this is because your System 1 got in the way.
An active System 2 would have noticed I said “Mary’s Mom,” so the fourth daughter
of course is Mary.
We are at some level aware of the competition between these two systems, hence our tendency
to ask “Is this a trick question?” when things seem too easy.
Kahneman describes several ways the brain takes certain shortcuts wherever it can.
For example, if I show you this: you’ll probably think of SOUP instead of “SOAP”
thanks to this restaurant scene you were just looking at.
This is called “priming,” your brain was “primed” with the restaurant scene rather
than a shower scene.
But priming goes farther than this.
Kathleen Vohs, in a paper titled “The Psychological Consequences of Money” showed that simply
being exposed to images of money made people more individualistic and less willing to be
involved with or depend on others.
Over 418 pages, Kahneman paints a picture of how many of our decisions are a result
of our mind’s use of several time and energy saving shortcuts, heuristics, rules of thumb.
And, we are mostly unaware of these shortcuts working in the background, yet they influence
our conscious thinking.
This still isn’t enough to disprove free will - Like a train conductor having the free
will to choose which track to drive on, you could say these mental processes are just
some boundaries that come with being human, and we have free will within the limits of
But which processes of the mind do we have the free will to control?
Well, before conscious behavior occurs, there is a cascade of things happening in the brain.
To present my next point, let’s look at just a few things that affect our choice of
1 is likes & wants, we’ll just call this desires.
For example, liking wine will generate behaviors like… drinking wine.
2 is emotions - Different emotions will color people’s thinking patterns and behaviors
in different ways.
3 Physiology will also affect behavior.
Things like heart rate, blood pressure, how much adrenaline is in your system, how much
you slept, if you’re sick et cetera 4 The last thing is beliefs as in ideas and
principles you feel strongly about or feel are part of your identity.
These will affect how you act and how you think.
So, which of these four do we have control over moment to moment?
First your desires - You can’t really control these yet they affect your behavior and your
Right now, I have no control over my dislike of sea urchin and my liking of macadamia nuts.
I could not conveniently decide to like sea urchin when I’m at a sushi restaurant, or
suddenly choose to dislike macadamia nuts when I’m saving money.
If we had free control over desires, life would be far easier.
On a diet?
Just Stop the desire to eat unhealthy foods.
Want to get a lot of studying done?
Just make yourself like Chemistry more than you do video games, and so on.
You might be able to distract yourself from desires, but you cannot choose to have desires
appear or disappear.
Let me again clarify that I’m talking about controlling desires in the moment.
Because, you may change likes and dislikes eventually.
I used to really like Gummy Bears.
After keeping my sugar intake very close to zero for quite a while, gummy bears now taste
far too sweet and don’t appeal to me at all nowadays.
Maybe if I ate a bunch of them, I’d start to like them again, but I cannot have myself
like gummy bears in this moment.
This is still the case for more strongly held desires - say it is my ambition to become
I cannot now decide to suddenly like math just as much as I like art, or I guess I wouldn’t
want to do that.
Next is Emotions, which of course affect your conscious thoughts.
Most people are more or less good at preventing emotions from affecting their behavior, but
for the most part you do not control whether emotions arise or not.
Considering the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are coming up, there’s a lot of construction
going on in the city nowadays.
Sometimes right outside my window.
When it gets loud enough, one of three things will happen: 1 I’ll notice it without any
irritation, 2 I’ll notice it, be a little irritated and then choose to ignore it, or
3 I’ll be pissed and maybe even say something out loud like “Man I’m tired of this shlt.”
My response will depend on a couple things including: If I’ve been sleeping well, and
if I’ve been exercising or meditating.
If all these things are going well the construction noise barely bothers me.
However, if I didn’t sleep well or if I’m hungry or didn’t exercise, then I am prone
to some level of irritation.
I feel that I can choose my response to this irritation, but whether the emotion arises
or not is already decided before the construction noise starts.
You may be able to willfully evoke certain emotions, like an actor preparing for a scene,
but you are not in control of whether emotions will arise or not in the moment.
When something sad happens, you do not make a decision to be sad before you become sad.
Then there’s physiology.
Your heart rate, blood pressure, your immune response, which hormones are being released
et cetera are not controlled by your conscious thoughts.
With enough training you can gain some control over certain aspects of your physiology, but
your physiology for the most part doesn’t operate with your permission.
To quote Sam Harris in his book “Free Will”: “At this moment, you are making countless
unconscious "decisions" with organs other than your brain--but these are not events
for which you feel responsible.
Are you producing red blood cells and digestive enzymes at this moment?
Your body is doing these things, of course, but if it "decided" to do otherwise, you would
be the victim of these changes, rather than their cause."
Some argue that physiology is actually the primary cause of emotion.
The James-Lange theory of emotion states that emotions are first expressed by the body,
then recognized by the brain and then they come into consciousness.
Anil Seth gives the example of how seeing a bear does “not in itself generate the
experience of fear, rather, seeing the bear sets in motion a load of physiological changes
- hormones being released, heart rate increasing et cetera - (this set of changes known as
the fight flight responses) and, your brain’s perception of these bodily changes in the
context of the bear being around leads to our experience of fear.“
The James-Lange theory has received some criticism, but there’s a lot of examples that corroborate
For example, In this lecture, Robert Sapolsky points out that someone may be given a benzodiazepine
like Valium to decrease their anxiety.
But someone who’s pulled a muscle and is having muscle spasms may also get a muscle
relaxant - a benzodiazepine, even at the same dose.
How does that work?
Part of anxiety comes from the brain monitoring the level of tension in your body.
“because you're sitting there, and you're saying things are just as horrible as they
were an hour ago!
But I am so relaxed.
I'm, like, dripping out of this chair, here.
It must not be so bad.”
So your brain is getting feedback from the muscle tone and seeing that you’re incredibly
relaxed, so your mental state becomes relaxed to match the state of the body.
Other evidence for this emotion physiology mind body connection thing is that as this
finnish group found, based on data from 700 people, certain emotions seem to be consistently
mapped to certain areas of the body, such that they came up with a heat map for each
Physiology will also of course affect your desires, for example even if spare ribs is
your favorite food, you probably won’t have the desire to eat that if you have the flu
and are nauseous.
Also, Being drunk can also strongly cue various desires.
And, obviously hunger or thirst will cue your desire to eat or drink.
"Um, you know I pick up the tea because I'm thirsty.
Is that free will?
You know" In another video I talked about how people deprived of salt developed strong
cravings for it and vitamin deficient babies developed an uncanny liking for cod liver
Next is Beliefs - by the way, I’m lumping principles, values, and ideas in with beliefs.
With enough exposure to certain types of information, you can surely change your beliefs eventually.
For example a conservative person may slowly shift to being more liberal if say they move
countries and are exposed to a totally new culture for a long enough time.
Or, someone could spend enough time reading the work of a compelling conspiracy writer
and they might start to believe in certain conspiracies that they used to think were
However, you cannot suddenly decide that you believe the moon is made out of cheese.
You could have that thought, but you will not truly believe that.
Maybe, you could sign up for a cheese moon brainwashing service, but even then whether
the brain washing works or not is not in your control.
Either the brain washing technique is effective that you come to believe the moon is made
out of cheese, or it’s not.
An atheist may decide to that he wants to become religious and tries his best to believe
in the tenets of some religion, but whether the books he reads or the people he talks
to are convincing enough to result in them genuinely adopting these beliefs isn’t up
Beliefs are perhaps the hardest thing to change and control, but at the same time may most
greatly influence our conscious thoughts and behaviors.
So, in the moment we have at most minimal control over desires, emotions, physiology
and beliefs, yet each of these affect our behavior and conscious thoughts.
So, is it the case that each of these can influence conscious thought, but we still
Do you control your thoughts?
Think about this question for a second.
You may have been unphased by my video so far and you reacted to the question with something
like “Of course we control our thoughts!” or maybe you thought “No our thoughts are
controlled not by us, but by unconscious factors.”
or maybe you hair vent had enough time to decide what to think.
Now you might be thinking “did he just say ‘hair vent’ ?” In any of these cases,
did you freely choose which reaction you had?
Here is Sam Harris giving a lecture in 2012:
"From the perspective of your conscious mind, you are actually no more responsible for your
next thought than you are for your birth into this world.
You can see that you no more author the next thing you think than the next thing I say.
Thoughts simply appear in consciousness.
What are you going to think next?
What am I gonna say next, I could suddenly start talking about why we don't eat owls.
Why don't we eat owls?
They seem perfectly good.
Where did that come from?
It came out of no where as far as you're concerned but the same thing is happening in your own
mind at this moment.
I'm standing up here trying to reason with you and you, you will think 'He does look
a little like Ben Stiller.'
Thoughts just emerge in consciousness, we are not authoring them, that would require
that we think them before we think them."
When I was watching this part, I nodded my head in agreement.
I didn’t consciously decide to agree and then nod, it just happened.
Why did I select this reaction and not scoff in disagreement?
Well, because it made sense to me.
So, why did I decide to have it make sense to me?
Well, it’s in line with the other information in my brain that came from books I’ve read,
and conversations or experiences I’ve had.
Why did I choose to insert such information in my head?
Questions like this could go on and on until we’re asking why my parents chose to be
born from their parents.
Even if you could trace what life experiences led to the way you talk or the desires and
beliefs that influence your thinking patterns, when you analyze your thoughts close enough
you realize that they just appear out of a void.
If you sit down, close your eyes and attempt not to think, you'll immediately see that
this is close to impossible - your mind is flooding itself with thoughts almost all the
time, and the thoughts that we feel we consciously chose to think are merely the ones we happened
to agree with.
We of course we have a will to do things, my will to make this video is what caused
it to exist, but I did not freely choose this will.
"So, our choices matter and there are clearly paths for making wiser ones.
There's no telling how much a conversation with a smart person could change you, but
we can't choose what we choose in life.
And when it seems that we choose what we choose, perhaps when going back and forth between
two options, we don't choose to choose what we choose."
This kind of discussion might provoke someone to perform arbitrary actions to demonstrate
their free will.
“Look, I have free will, I can sit in this chair and do nothing because I want to.”
But all this would demonstrate is that your past experiences have created the type of
person that would choose to sit in a chair when someone challenges the existence of free
I have to agree with Daniel Dennett’s point on Free Will: Realizing the US dollar’s
value is an illusion, since it went off the gold standard, is not going to have people
burn their dollars and start bartering.
In the same way, coming to the conclusion that free will is an illusion doesn’t necessarily
have drastic repercussions.
All the drivers that had you survive and live your life in a way such that you’d be watching
this video right now are for the most part still going to drive you going forward.
The repercussions of committing a crime will still prevent people from being criminals,
fulfillment and compassion will still drive people to help others, ambition will still
drive us to achieve goals, and boredom, an aching butt, a hungry stomach and a full bladder
will still prevent you from sitting in a chair forever.
In that case, why am I even talking about this?
Acknowledging that we don’t have free will is useful even if you’re not looking for
an existential crisis.
If you accept that conscious thoughts, decisions and behaviors spur from a cascade of prior
events that occurred in and outside your body, you are better equipped to understand why
you operate the way you do.
Rather than blaming an immaterial self for your shortcomings, you can acknowledge the
fact that what deserves blame or praise is not you, but the information put in your head,
your interactions with other people, the food you put in your body and the habits you engage
This kind of thinking allows you to control your behaviors more effectively.
Any aspiration you have that involves changing the type of person you are - becoming more
disciplined, more productive, more caring will benefit from a logical examination of
how your physical body and brain have come to operate they way they do.
When you don’t succeed in say finishing everything on your to do list, you can be
curious about what factors affected your focus: didn’t sleep well, ate a poor quality lunch,
drank too much coffee, the office was too loud et cetera.
Then you can start making modifications: Am I more focused if I exercise in the morning
or at night?
Which makes me feel best: cardio, strength training or HIIT?
Would meditation or yoga help my focus?
Maybe if I remove X and add Y to my lunch I won’t get sleepy afterwards.
This approach is an assuredly better use of your time than blaming yourself for not using
your ‘free will’ to stay focused and just saying “Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll really
The other thing about dismissing free will, is that it promotes compassion, hatred for
others doesn’t make any sense, and people can become more interesting.
Like the example with Phineas Gage at the start of the video, if someone is a jerk it
of course makes sense to avoid them or be critical of their actions, but wasting your
energy on hating them doesn’t make any sense.
They were unlucky to be afflicted by the circumstances that caused them to be a jerk.
You might even become interested in the factors that had them turn out this way, and if you
choose to continue associating with them you’ll understand how to better deal with their behavior.
This kind of thinking may also lead you to be curious about the people you do like, wanting
to learn what about their past made them the way they are and what things are most important
to them and why.
In the process you’re sure to strengthen your relationship with this person.
The idea that we don’t control our conscious thoughts and our actions are governed entirely
by complex algorithms running inside a squishy hunk of meat inside our skulls can be a harrowing
thought, but being curious about how these algorithms work can actually make life easier
and more enjoyable.