Skip to content

You Have No Free Will

Posted on:October 31, 2023 at 02:06 PM

It’s Halloween, my favorite holiday, a day that’s become dedicated to fear and scares, so it seemed like a good day to post about a terrifying topic:


Your choices don't matter, here's you:

An article caught my attention recently. (More here and here.

These articles discuss Robert Sapolsky’s conclusion that free will doesn’t exist. He’s written a book called Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will.

He writes:

We are nothing more or less than the sum of that which we could not control – our biology, our environments, their interactions

Sapolsky is a scientist who has spent the last 4 decades studying humans and other primates. For more than three decades he’s gone to Kenya to study baboons in the wild.

He won the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1987 and is a John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor, Professor of Biology, of Neurology and of Neurosurgery with a ton of publications to his name.

This is a man who has dedicated his life to his studies.

And he says that we have no free will.

I have not chosen to write this post. You have not chosen to (not) read it.

None of our decisions are under our control.

We have absolutely no will of our how, everything that we do is result of being part of an incredibly complex system. It’s the result of biochemical reactions all driven by your experiences.

Now, many folks would question his conclusion. I certainly find myself struggling. I definitely believe that we have less free will than we’d like to believe, but to suggest that we have absolutely no free will whatsoever is a hard pill to swallow.

I struggle a bit, as well, because it seems that he’s spent his career trying to prove an epiphinay he’d had in his teens:

God is not real, there is no free will, and we primates are pretty much on our own

This seems a bit telling to me. IT seems unsurprising that after decades of research he’s come to a conclusion that reinforces his long held belief.

Of course, he’s not the first person to reach this conclusion.

Sam Harris, for example, has also concluded that the Neuroscience of free will is pretty clear, that we have no real agency and instead we are “biochemical puppets”.

Of course there are a great many philosophers who have long since come to the same conclusion without the years of study of neurochemical reactions. Many philosophers have similar views on the absence of free will.

People really don’t want to feel that they have not control over their decisions.

Sapolsky admits:

The greatest risk of abandoning free will isn’t that we’ll want to do bad things. It’s that, without a sense of personal agency, we won’t want to do anything.

He says we, people, are machines but also admits:

It is logically indefensible, ludicrous, meaningless to believe that something ‘good’ can happen to a machine. Nonetheless, I am certain that it is good if people feel less pain and more happiness.

In a discussion with someone about his topic they smartly posited:

Is maintenance not something good happening to a machine?

I have to agree there.

Sapolsky, and other adherents to the belief there is no free will, seem to have this belief that somehow, if we all accept that we don’t make our choices, it will improve our empathy and understanding as a whole.

Says Sapolsky:

Free will is a myth, and the sooner we accept that, the more just our society will be.

This all feels very paradoxical to me. The idea that “people don’t have a choice” feels very much at odds with promoting empathy.

Perhaps the idea is not to excuse harmful behaviors but rather to recognize the complex factors that contribute to it. If you adopt a perspective that actions are determined by a web of causality — encompassing upbringing, environment, and even neurobiology — it could lead to a more compassionate understanding of others’ actions. This might encourage societal focus on addressing root causes rather than merely administering punitive measures. In that way, a deterministic view could potentially foster empathy and more nuanced approaches to social issues.

This almost makes sense to me.

I certainly have long believed that we are all part of an inconceivably complex system.

But, I still struggle with the idea that there’s simply no free will whatsoever.

What of Christianity, Islam, & Judaism?

This whole concept may seem offensive to adherents to Christianity or Islam.

In Christianity, the concept of free will is often viewed as a gift from God, allowing humans to choose between good and evil. The idea is central to many Christian doctrines, such as Original Sin and salvation, which hold that individuals have the freedom to accept or reject God’s grace.

There are, however, many differing viewpoints, and while I won’t delve deeply into them here, it’s worth understanding that in general, free will in Christianity is often understood as both a privilege and a responsibility, a means by which humans are morally accountable for their actions.

The concept of free will in Islam shares similarities with Christianity but has its own unique aspects. In Islamic thought, human beings are endowed with free will, enabling them to choose between right and wrong. This concept is crucial for the Islamic understanding of accountability, sin, and divine justice.

The key points:

As he is, himself, Jewish, though obviously he long since stepped out of that faith, it’s worth noting his own upbringing would say this is antithetical.

In Judaism, the concept of free will is considered fundamental. It’s rooted in the Torah and other religious texts, and is often summarized in the phrase “Bechirah Chofshit,” which translates to “free choice” or “free will.”

Key Points:

So, in Judaism, free will isn’t just a theoretical concept but a practical guide for ethical living, individual accountability, and the ability to repent and change.

So while the core belief in human accountability exists in these religions, in each the theological frameworks around free will can differ.

In them all, however, free will does exist and is critical to those core beliefs. I suspect that, given there are a significant number of folks on this planet who practice these these religions, Sapolksy’s conclusion might seem almost heretical.

What of Stoicism & Buddhism?

How does this jive with my Stoic and Buddhist learnings?


In Stoicism, the concept of free will is intricately linked with the doctrine of the “dichotomy of control.” Stoic philosophers like Epictetus argued that some things are within our control, such as our judgments, desires, and actions, while other things, like external events, are not.

The Stoic viewpoint encourages focusing on what one can control and accepting what one cannot. In this sense, Stoicism offers a form of “conditional free will,” where individuals have the freedom to control their responses to external circumstances, even if they cannot control the circumstances themselves.

For Stoics, the exercise of free will lies in choosing one’s attitude and actions wisely, aligned with virtue and reason, regardless of external conditions. The concept doesn’t challenge the deterministic nature of the universe but rather emphasizes the realm in which free will can meaningfully operate.


In Buddhism, the concept of free will is often framed within the context of karma and dependent origination. While actions (karma) have consequences that shape future experiences, these actions are not predestined; they can be influenced by one’s will.

The Buddha emphasized the importance of “right intention” and “right action” in the Eightfold Path, suggesting a degree of personal agency in spiritual development. Buddhism posits that individuals have the freedom to choose virtuous paths, though this freedom operates within the framework of causality and conditionality.

However, Buddhism also acknowledges that much of human behavior is driven by unconscious desires or attachments, which can limit the expression of free will. The goal of Buddhist practice, then, is to gain awareness and wisdom, allowing for more conscious choices and thus a form of “enlightened” free will.

While the deterministic elements of karma and dependent origination are acknowledged, Buddhism allows room for a nuanced form of free will through mindfulness and ethical conduct.

Of others?

There are, of course, many other spiritual and philosophical beliefs with deeply contrasting points of view. Most, from my experience, emphasize the importance of free will.

There are some spiritual and/or philosophical teachings where some form of determinism or lack of free will play a key role:

So, obviously this is a complex topic with a lot of differing view points.

Determinism is Historically Bad

History has shown that deterministic views, when misapplied to entire groups of people, can lead to stereotyping, discrimination, and even atrocities. The belief that certain groups cannot change often serves to justify prejudice and inhumane treatment, rather than fostering empathy.

In this context, a deterministic perspective can be weaponized to absolve individuals or societies from taking responsibility for systemic issues, essentially saying, “They can’t help being the way they are, so why try to change things?”

So while determinism can, in some individual cases, lead to greater empathy by helping us understand the web of influences that shape behavior, it can have the opposite effect when applied broadly to whole groups of people, reinforcing harmful biases and divisions.

Throughout history, the notion of determinism has often been used to justify social hierarchies, systemic inequalities, and even acts of cruelty. For example:

  1. Social Darwinism: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a deterministic interpretation of evolutionary theory was used to justify social and economic inequalities, perpetuating the idea that some groups were “naturally” superior to others.
  2. Colonialism: The deterministic belief in the “civilizing mission” of European powers served as a rationale for the subjugation of indigenous populations.
  3. Caste Systems: In some societies, deterministic beliefs related to karma and reincarnation have been used to justify rigid caste systems, framing people’s social standing as predestined and unchangeable.
  4. Criminal Justice: In certain eras, determinism has been employed to argue for harsh, punitive criminal justice systems on the assumption that “criminal types” could not be reformed.

However, determinism has also been invoked for more positive social changes:

  1. Reform Movements: The deterministic view that social conditions influence behavior has inspired various reform movements aimed at improving those conditions, rather than punishing individuals.
  2. Medical Model of Addiction: Understanding addiction as a disease rather than a moral failing is a form of determinism that has led to more compassionate and effective treatment options.

The interpretation and application of deterministic ideas can thus have a broad range of social and ethical implications, both positive and negative.

All of this is Terrifying

The idea of lacking free will can be unsettling for several reasons:

Given the complexity of this topic, it’s no surprise that the idea of not having free will could be deeply unsettling.

It scares me deeply.

I have watched many horror movies, but this concept of having absolutely no free will whatsoever seems to be truly horrifying to me.

None of my choices have been matter? Everything is pre-determined?

What’s the point, then?

Is there any point to any of this?

What do you think?

Happy Hallowe’en!