Free Will Does Not Make Sense

Many people will react strongly if you tell them that there is no Free Will. Now why would that be? Well, what is the opposite of “Free?”

People who believe in Free Will have the impression that if it's not true they will be forced to do something against their Will. They'll want to do one thing but something will force them to do something else. As they see it, their Will would no longer be free; it would be under compulsion.

Such people do not believe that their actions are caused merely by the actions of the laws of physics. They do not accept that they are simply expressions of the universe. They want to be, in some sense, separate from all that.

It is because of this line of reasoning that I've said (in another article) that “Free Will is a red herring.” The idea that the universe, while obeying the laws of physics, will force you to do something is somewhat of a misconception.

Yes, at times the universe does act against your desires. For example, if you are standing on top of a hill during a lightning storm and the laws of physics cause you to be hit by a million volts of electricity, this will almost certainly not be what you wanted. But what did you want?

You want what you want. Why do you want that? Why, because it strikes you as the best choice of all the ones you can choose from. You might like apple pie and cherry pie, but there's only cherry pie in the fridge. So you “choose” the cherry pie and don't feel bad about that. You don't complain that the universe “forced” you to choose the cherry pie. In fact, you enjoy it.


No matter what you do, you always attempt to improve your situation. That's what we sentient beings do. You will never choose the second-best choice. Not ever. If you seem to be doing that, there will be turn out to be some extenuating circumstance that caused you to pick something that seemed second-best in one way, but overall was best (as far as you knew).

In everyday life all choices are made this way. All those choices are in accord with the laws of physics, based upon what you know, what you are capable of, what your resources are, and so on. So when the time comes to choose, you choose. And every time it feels like you have Free Will, because the choice came from you. For example, you weren't being forced into the choice by some other sentient being.

There are, of course, many times when we are, in fact, forced to do things by other people. Nobody claims to have entirely Free Will in such cases. But in this article I am speaking only of those cases when it seems our will is entirely free, as with the example of the cherry pie.

You are so accustomed to choosing from within the realm of the possible that you do not notice that you choose within constraints. For example, if you are going to visit a friend you cannot “choose” to get there by flying like a bird. You don't even notice that that option isn't available; it simply doesn't occur to you (unless, perhaps, you think a lot about airplanes or birds). So when you choose to not fly, you don't feel you've had your eventual decision (car, bus, walk, whatever) forced upon you.


It is my impression that many of the sages of the past realized that everything we do comes about as the end result of a sequence of causes. They couldn't say, “Your choices are caused by the laws of physics,” because they didn't know about those laws. So some of them spoke of “The Way” (a.k.a. Tao) while a lot more of them spoke of “The Will of God.”

What is the Will of God? Is it at odds with your Free Will? “Why, no,” they might tell you, “everything that happens occurs because God willed it so.” Or to put it another way: everything happens because the laws of physics — God's most stringent commandments, one might say! — made it so.

Can you resist the Will of God? Technically, no. Even if you choose to defy God, it will be because He allowed you to do so. Or to put it in the language of science, you can attempt to break the laws of physics, but you won't succeed.

In addition, there's no physical law that prevents you from believing in erroneous ideas about the Will of God and attempting to convince others likewise. Some might call that “defying God” but, once again, it happens only because it can happen. The Will of God is not contravened just because people pass around mistaken information. The laws of physics always apply, whether we're passing along truth or falsehood.


You may think that I am abusing the word “God” above. But I am not speaking of the idea of God (which represents a vast array of beliefs). Rather, I am speaking of the Will of God, which most believers would agree means, “The Way Things [Must] Happen.” What else would the Will of God be but “The Way Things  Happen?”

It is true that believers have attached a huge range of notions to that word “God.” As a result, I do not recommend that people speak in terms of “God,” because the idea has become confused to the point of being ludicrous. As I mentioned in my article Theism Does Not Make Sense, the typical conception of God as an invisible person does not stand up to scrutiny.

However, if you envison God merely as the embodiment of the universe, and his Will as “The Way Things Happen,” then perhaps you catch a glimpse of the insight of past sages.


As many sages have said, we have no choice but to follow God's Will. That is to say, we enact the laws of physics. It's not compulsion; it's just the way things work. You can no more disagree with it than you can argue with the existence of light or the force of gravity. That's just the way way things are in this universe we inhabit.

Nonetheless, it is possible for people to imagine that they are separate from all this. Indeed, we have been taught to see ourselves as separate agents. Human civilization evolved this belief as a  means to control us. That is to say, by making us individuals, we can be blamed for individual action. It's a practical, extremely effective set of memes, and it lets society off the hook when it inadvertently creates monsters.

Since we have been taught that we are separate, this induces within us a separation from God. To put it another (far better) way, we have been taught that we are separate from The Way Things Happen. We have been taught that we are, in some strange, undefinable way, immune to the laws of physics and the mundane principles of cause and effect.

We're not.

If it can be seen that we are not separate, we also see that we are one with the universe. You can, if you wish, call this becoming one with God. And indeed, many sages have said just that.

I wouldn't recommend phrasing it that way, though. It's sufficient to say that each of us is an expression of the universe.


Some people are horrified by the idea that they do not have Free Will. They think that the moment they admit that, something horrible will happen. But you know what? Things continue exactly as before.

Why would they change? You didn't have Free Will before, and knowing you don't have it changes very little.You'll still be free to choose the option that seems best from within the existing constraints. By not bewailing the choices you can't make and not obsessing about the reasons you choose as you do, you can still feel like you're choosing freely.

Sometimes this will result in pleasure. Sometimes it will cause you pain. Just as it has always been.

In those moments you can surrender your misconceptions about separation and Will — doesn't this sound like a religious statement? — you find that other people aren't so far away. They are subject to the same rules you are. They make the same types of mistakes you can make. When this is seen, forgiving others is much simpler, and when that is done, love (even for one's enemies) isn't blocked.

If you give up the idea of Free Will you will, in my opinion, see things as they really are. And you don't actually need to use the word “God” to see that.


  1. Here's another way of looking at it:

    1) The universe can be viewed as a collection of particles, between which a series of interactions occurs.

    2) The human brain makes decisions based on external stimuli, and its current state, which is in turn affected by external stimuli.

    3) If two brains were fed exactly the same stimuli, they would (probably) react differently because they are wired slightly differently.

    4) However, the brain can also be viewed as a collection of particles, each interacting with each other in a defined way.

    5) This means, in theory, if we knew the exact sub-atomic state of a human brain (and body), we could extrapolate how it will be in the future.

    6) Because we proved the brain is deterministic, this means that "free will" and the idea of a "choice" does in fact not exist at all, and your "choice" is dictated by your current state, and the state of things around you.

    P.S That was pretty difficult to explain in words. I'm happy to try and clarify anything that doesn't make sense.

    1. That was well explained, Flukiluke. Some people might object that your explanation is Newtonian and doesn't address quantum indeterminacy. In my opinion, though, that does not appear significant at the level of your description.

      I say this because of a situation that many doctors and nursing staff can tell you about: people whose ability to form memories has been compromised.

      My wife was a nurse's aid and she cared for an old woman who would forget her from day to day. Each morning my wife would have to introduce herself. The woman would always ask where my wife was from, to which my wife would reply, “I'm from Belfry.” Without exception, the woman would joke, “I'll hope you don't have bats in your Belfry!”

      As far as the woman was concerned, each day was the same day, with the same starting conditions. It would seem inevitable that she would respond the same way to the same inputs.

      There are intriguing exceptions. I read about a family whose father was in a situation similar to the woman above. However, he would come up with different jokes every day. It seems that his creativity picked up on small differences each day.

      I do not recall where I read about this case, but it really stuck in my mind.

      Perhaps the man wasn't responding to a specific cue (as with the woman and the word “belfry”). I recall that the person relating the story was one of his relatives rather than a hired caretaker, so the man was probably given a wider range of initial inputs as the relatives had a vested interest in him acting unpredictably. A nurse, on the other hand, would find it easier to know in advance what would happen.

      It would be interesting to interview some nurses who care for several people in such circumstances. I'm guessing those nurses wouldn't believe in metaphysical free will. However, they might speak of a deeper level in each person — the part that lives in the present and has qualia. My wife, when she spoke of the woman mentioned above, did NOT speak of her as if she was a robot. On the contrary, my wife spoke highly of the woman, despite her obvious mental difficulties.